Monday, December 17, 2012

Chocolate from scratch... almost

Chocolate is everywhere at Christmastime!  And while pure cacao most definitely has health benefits, it is easy to be led astray with the simplified notion that 'chocolate is good for you'.  What is important to understand is that while consuming pure dark chocolate (minimum 70% cacao) confers many health benefits, there are also many sugar and fat-laden chocolate treats on the market that do not have the same effect.

Dark, milk and white chocolate all contain differing amounts of key ingredients 
to achieve the desired flavour and consistency.

Let's begin by understanding the art of chocolate-making.  Chocolate is made from cacao beans, which are crushed and mixed with other ingredients such as cacao butter, sugar, milk and vanilla to improve the texture and taste.  Varying amounts of these ingredients is what results in different percentages of cacao in the finished product.  Milk chocolate is typically a lower percentage of cacao and contains more sugar and milk, while dark chocolate traditionally contains less sugar and no milk at all.  On the other hand, white chocolate contains none of the cacao solids, only the cacao butter.  The higher the percentage of cacao, the richer and less sweet chocolate tends to be.

A cacao pod was one of our interesting findings 
while hiking up Volc√°n Maderas in Ometepe, Nicaragua

As you can probably imagine, the health benefits of chocolate do not come from the added milk or sugar, but rather the cacao solids, the amount of which is represented by the percentage of cacao in the finished product.  Cacao is best known for its beneficial effects on cardiovascular health, due to the antioxidant flavonoids it contains.  Flavonoids are compounds present in plant foods, and have been linked to reduced risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, stroke and coronary heart disease.  In terms of cardiovascular health, favourable actions include:

  • Increase in HDL 'good' cholesterol
  • Decrease in LDL 'bad' cholesterol
  • Inhibition of oxidation of LDL cholesterol by free radicals, thereby prevention of atherosclerosis (plaque formation inside arteries)
  • Regulation of inflammatory and immune processes in blood vessel walls
  • Regulation of vascular tone (blood vessel constriction), a factor in high blood pressure

Approximately 30-40 cacao beans are found inside each cacao pod, 
and are each approximately the size and shape of an almond.

If you are looking for a healthy homemade chocolate recipe this Christmas, my Chocolate Bliss Wedges have been a hit with everyone I've sampled them on so far.  You can put your own twist on them by using any combination of dried fruit & nuts that strikes your fancy.  Be  creative and have fun with it!

Chocolate Bliss Wedges

¼ cup coconut oil, melted (see my earlier post on the health benefits of coconuts)
¼ cup maple syrup
¼ cup cocoa powder
Crushed walnuts
Unsweetened coconut, if desired
Vanilla bean (scraped from inside of vanilla bean; not liquid extract)

Mix all ingredients together, adding the desired amounts of walnuts and raisins to hold the mixture together.  Freeze for 15 minutes, then cut into wedges and enjoy!  Store in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Arranged like this, these chocolate wedges look more like chocolate pizza! 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Re-Linking of the CAND and OAND

On June 2nd, 2012, with a 60% majority, the members of the Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors (CAND) voted in favor of re-linking membership between the CAND and the Ontario Association of Naturopathic Doctors (OAND), effective as of January 1st, 2013.  Holding the position of the Naturopathic Students' Association (NSA) CAND Representative, I recognize the importance of creating awareness about the re-linking of these two organizations.  To achieve this, there are several important questions I would like to address.

Why should the CAND and OAND be linked?

As a growing profession, there is strength in numbers.  When we stand united, we are able to provide a better representation of the profession to the public, government, other health care professions, and insurance companies, to name a few.  In this way, we are able to create a more positive viewpoint of our profession to these groups.  Division of the CAND and OAND sends a negative message to those we are trying to influence.

From a human resources perspective, linking these two associations will help to reduce duplication of benefits and workload.  It will also help to ensure that both associations will have the financial and human resources required in order to effectively address the challenges that our profession faces on both a national and provincial level.

How will re-linking affect naturopathic doctors in Ontario?  And naturopathic medical students?

Linking of the CAND and OAND essentially means that naturopathic doctors in Ontario who want to be a member of the CAND or OAND must be a member of both associations.  For some, this may initially present a financial challenge as it will require payment of fees to both associations. 

Throughout the re-linking process, the CAND and OAND have put considerable thought into the effects that higher membership fees may have.  Overall, they see the increased fees as an adjustment that naturopathic doctors in Ontario must make in order to help restore the relationship between the two associations; the focus is on working together on behalf of the profession.

The CAND and OAND view remaining de-linked as a risk for our profession not reaching its full potential in the province of Ontario, and thereby being less likely to become a prominent choice in healthcare.  It is important for all members to understand the beneficial effects of having linked membership, and that by the CAND and OAND committing to working together, this will result in improvements in the profession moving forward.  Membership fees go toward marketing and promotion, advocacy, professional education and member support; ultimately, the goal is to ensure the financial resources are available to assist Ontario in reaching its full potential.

Additionally, with all naturopathic doctors in Ontario supporting the CAND and OAND, the OAND has committed to reducing its fees beginning in 2014.

Students of The Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM) will not be financially affected by re-linking as they are already members of the CAND, and membership with the OAND is also sponsored.


For any further questions about the CAND and OAND re-linking, or the CAND in general, please contact me at

Sincere thanks to Shawn O’Reilly, Heather Fleck, and Lowell Greib from the CAND for their contributions toward writing this article.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Coo Coo for Coconut!

It's pretty easy to go coo coo over something as delicious as coconut.  And now that so much research is coming out about coconut's health benefits, it seems to be appearing everywhere.  No longer only in traditional Thai and South Indian cuisine, coconut is increasing in popularity as a staple in many non-dairy alternatives for milk, yogurt and butter.

In Nicaragua, chopping off the top of a coconut and drinking the water with a straw is an easy, natural, 
and delicious way to replenish your electrolytes, so easily lost in the 40 degree heat.

For years, coconuts were demonized for their high saturated fat content.  Recently, however, researchers have discovered that the saturated fats present in coconut are unlike those in animal products.  The difference lies in the type of fatty acids they contain; coconuts contain a unique type of fatty acids called 'medium chain triglycerides'.  MCTs are quite different from long chain fatty acids (LCFAs), which are abundant in animal products, and have more beneficial effects on the body.  MCTs are metabolized differently in that they bypass the usual digestive processes and are sent directly to the liver.  MCTs are then immediately used for energy, rather than being stored as fat, and are therefore seen to boost metabolism and assist with weight loss.  In addition, MCTs do not negatively affect cholesterol levels like LCFAs can, making them a healthy fat for those concerned about atherosclerosis and heart disease.

Aside from being a healthy source of fat, coconut are delicious too!  Normally, I go for chocolate desserts, but today, a friend of mine made one of the most delicious desserts I've ever tasted, and it didn't contain a trace of chocolate.  This time, the key ingredient was coconut, and when I got home, I was inspired to re-create her masterpiece.

Coconut Crack Bars

1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1/4 cup maple syrup
2 Tablespoons coconut oil (melted to liquid)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine all ingredients and mix - I used my trusty Magic Bullet, but a food processor or even mixing by hand would work just fine.  Transfer mixture to a small pan or container and press to form an even layer.  Refrigerate for one hour before cutting, or put in the freezer for 15 minutes if you can't wait that long!

I recommend enjoying these with a cup of tea or beverage of your choice, as they are very rich on their own.  And as a warning, they are called 'crack' bars for a reason... you might not be able to stop at just one!

¡Buen provecho!

After spending the morning volunteering on Lulu's farm in Ometepe, Nicaragua, 
he kindly used his machete to open fresh coconuts for us all to enjoy!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Organic on a Budget

In a perfect world, everything we eat would be organic.  For most people, however, budgeting to eat 100% organic can be challenging.  That's why I love the research done by Environmental Working Group (EWG) - they have analyzed 49 fruits and vegetables for pesticide residue and have published the results on their website to help guide consumers as to which foods are most important to choose organic.  You can read the full list here, and the condensed version in the image below:

The condensed version of their research is known as The Clean 15 and the Dirty Dozen, seen above and published annually as the Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

Since the benefits of eating non-organic fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of having a diet low in fruits and vegetables, this guide is very useful to help make decisions in the grocery store.  If you're just starting to take interest in organically grown foods, the risks of consuming pesticides may be worth considering:

Since the very nature of pesticides is to kill living organisms ("pests"), and humans are also considered living organisms, pesticides are toxic to us by their very definition.  In particular, the health risks that pesticides confer have been validated by researchers and physicians internationally, as well as by US and international government agencies.  Pesticides have been linked to many health conditions, such as:

  • Brain and nervous system toxicity
  • Cancer
  • Hormone disruption
  • Skin, eye and lung irritation

As an investment in our health and our future, a great first step is to be mindful of the produce we are consuming and to make educated choices about reducing our pesticide exposure.  Making small changes such as this can make a big difference when it comes to our long-term health, and so I wish for you good health and happy eating!


Friday, July 6, 2012

Enjoying Sunshine, Naturopathically

There's no doubt of the importance of protecting yourself from excessive sun exposure.  From avoiding skin damage and aging to preventing skin cancer, minimizing exposure to UV rays is key for long-term skin health.  However, there are multiple ways to do so, and if sunscreen is your best option, read on for what to consider when choosing a product!

On the beach of San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, sunscreen was a necessity - 
here, Green Beaver worked well to nourish our skin and prevent sunburn.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC)'s recommendations include spending time in the shade and wearing clothing and sunglasses to protect skin and eyes from the harmful UV rays.  They also recommend avoiding indoor tanning - it has been linked to several types of skin cancer, including melanoma (the most deadly form), squamous cell carcinoma, and ocular melanoma (cancer of the eye)

When spending time in the shade or covering up from the sun are just not options, be sure to apply sunscreen to protect yourself from excessive sun exposure.  Building on this recommendation from a naturopathic point of view, it is important to choose a sunscreen that will protect you while not causing absorption of unnecessary chemicals - ironically, often carcinogenic chemicals - into your skin.  

In time for the season, Environmental Working Group has put together a comprehensive 2012 Sunscreen Report, which evaluates over 1,800 sunscreens for their efficacy, ingredients, and any health concerns associated with them.  There is an easy search to learn more about your favourite brands, or you can view the list of Top Sunscreens, which outlines the cleanest products available.  

Sunscreen at the beach, by Alba Botanica

The best natural sunscreens contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, mineral compounds which act to reflect, scatter, and absorb UV rays.  Additionally, look for products that do not contain:
  • Oxybenzone (may be listed as methanone, 2-hydroxy 4 methyoxydenxophenone, or benzophenone-3): These compounds are potential hormone disruptors and contributors to cell damage, which can lead to cancer.
  • Retinyl palmitate (vitamin A): May increase the risk of skin cancer when used on sun-exposed skin.
  • Parabens (methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben): Parabens are ubiquitous in cosmetic products, being used a synthetic preservatives.  Unfortunately, they also have undesirable effects such as hormone disruption, which is linked to cancer.
My personal favourite brand of sunscreen is Alba Botanica, a company which makes a variety of natural products.  I find that their sunscreens tend to not be as greasy as some other natural sunscreens, and I find them to work quite well.

With all this in mind, it is important to remember that there are benefits to sun exposure as well.  Our skin synthesizes natural vitamin D when exposed to the sun, a process which is completely blocked by sunscreen.  Interestingly, vitamin D has an important role in cancer prevention, as well as bone health and proper immune system function.  Therefore, moderate amounts of time in the sun can be healthy, while ensuring to be mindful about preventing excessive exposure.

Stay tuned next week for what factors determine the amount of sunshine you need for optimal vitamin D levels, and what foods to eat to prevent sunburn.  Until then, enjoy the sunshine and stay healthy!


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Medicinal Properties of Oats

Eating on the go is an inevitable part of a busy lifestyle, but doing so healthily shouldn’t be impossible!  That’s why my mom and I came up with this healthy breakfast recipe back when I was in high school, so I could continue to eat well amidst my busy schedule of school, dance, and commuting between the two.  We called them ‘Breakfast Cookies’, as they are essentially the contents of a bowl of oatmeal in cookie form, for a quick and easy breakfast!  Unlike a traditional ‘cookie’, however, they are free from any added sugar or fat; their natural sweetness comes from raisins and spices, and their moisture comes from applesauce.

Breakfast cookies, ready to enjoy with a mug of tea or a glass of milk (dairy or non-dairy!)

This recipe features oats, which have medicinal properties as a food as well as in their botanical form.  When consumed as a food, oats are rich in fibre, manganese, selenium, phosphorus, magnesium, and zinc.  They are useful in balancing blood glucose levels, decreasing the risk of Type 2 Diabetes, lowering cholesterol levels, and overall improving cardiovascular health.

Botanically known as Avena sativa, oats are a true nutritive for the nervous system.  When given as a botanical tincture, oats have mild anti-depressant properties, and are also indicated for nervous exhaustion, anxiety and insomnia.

This is what an oat field looks like - in Farmington, California

Oats are also extremely nourishing and moisturizing to the skin when applied topically, and can be used for many conditions including inflammation, eczema, acne, dry and irritated skin.  My favourite is an oatmeal face mask: simply grind a couple tablespoons of oats in the blender and mix in a small bowl with enough warm water to form a thin paste.  Massage gently into skin and allow to dry.  Rinse off after 20-30 minutes.

But since eating oats is the most fun, see the recipe below!

Scarlett’s Breakfast Cookies

First, preheat the oven to 350°F.  Then, mix together in a large bowl:

1 1/3 cups of whole rolled oats
2/3 cup rolled oats, ground into flour in the blender
½ cup raisins (or other dried fruit)
2/3 cup walnuts (or other nuts/seeds)
¼ cup unsweetened shredded coconut (optional)
1 ½ cups applesauce
¾ tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ginger
¼ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp allspice
1/8 tsp cloves

Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper and place cookie batter in small flattened mounds, an inch or so apart, to make 18 cookies.  Bake for 15-17 minutes, then allow to cool on a wire rack.  These cookies can be eaten immediately, or stored in the fridge for up to a week.  Enjoy for breakfast or as a snack anytime!


Friday, June 15, 2012

Spicy Dahl Recipe

To put theory to practice, here's my straightforward and delicious recipe for dahl.  It features red lentils, a small quick-cooking legume that softens and forms a thick stew-like mixture when combined with vegetables and spices.  Red lentils are a rich source of protein, fibre, B vitamins such as folate and thiamin, and minerals such as iron, molybdenum, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and copper.  When combined with a grain such as quinoa or rice, this combination forms a complete protein source.

This recipe also features turmeric (Curcuma longa), a relative of ginger that is widely recognized for its anti-inflammatory properties.  

Turmeric in three forms: the whole root, ground, and powdered

Turmeric is associated with a myriad of health benefits, including protection against liver damage, anti-cancer effects, and reduction of inflammation in arthritis.  Dr Andrew Weil, MD, founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, is a proponent of using turmeric abundantly in cooking.  He also points out the research showing that turmeric is much better absorbed when combined with black pepper.  For the recipe below, at least 1-2 tsp of turmeric and 1-2 tsp of freshly ground pepper is recommended.  The rest of the spices can be added to taste.  Enjoy!

Scarlett's Spicy Dahl

Bring to a boil 1 cup red lentils and 3 cups water, then reduce heat to simmer.  Stir occasionally – they’ll thicken up as they cook.
In a separate pot, bring to a boil 1 cup quinoa and 2 ½ cups water, then reduce heat to simmer.

In a frying pan, sauté a variety of vegetables in olive oil or coconut oil: Onions, red pepper, green pepper, leeks (the green and white parts!), zucchini, green peas, celery, garlic
Then add spices to taste:
Turmeric (1-2 tsp)
Chili pepper flakes
Cumin (ground and whole seeds)
Pepper (1-2 tsp; freshly ground is best)

Once the lentils have thickened up, add the veggies to the lentils and see how it tastes.  At this point, you can definitely add more spices – I also like to add a little more olive oil at the end for more flavour.
Serve dahl over a bed of quinoa (or rice!)


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Preparation Tips for Beans

As promised, in an effort to decrease consumption of canned foods (see my previous post on BPA in Canned Food), this week I'll give some guidance on how to cook beans from scratch!

Garbanzo beans (chickpeas), red kidney beans, navy beans, and black turtle beans

The First Step - Measuring
Dried beans yield approximately 3 times the amount once cooked.  So, 1 cup of dried beans = 3 cups cooked beans.

The Next Step - Soaking
After rinsing, soak beans overnight in a glass jar containing 3 times their volume of cold water.  In the morning, drain the beans and put them in your favourite cooking pot with the same amount of fresh water.

The Next Next Step - Cooking
Choose your favourite bean from the chart below to determine their cooking time.  Bring water and beans to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.  Allow to cook until soft and easily mashed, then drain the beans.

The Final Step - Eating
From hearty chili to summer bean salad, there are countless ways to enjoy cooked beans!  In my next post, I'll share with you one of my favourite original recipes using red lentils:  Scarlett's Spicy Dahl

Beans (best soaked first)
Cooking Time
Black Beans
1 - 1½ hours
Garbanzo Beans (Chickpeas)
1 - 1½ hours
Great Northern Beans
1 - 1½ hours
Lima Beans (Large)
45 - 60 minutes
Lima Beans (Baby)
1 hour
Navy Beans
1 - 1½ hours
Pink Beans
1 - 1½ hours
Pinto Beans
1 - 1½ hours
Red Beans
1 - 1½ hours
Red Kidney Beans
1 - 1½ hours
3 hours

Beans (do not require soaking)
Cooking Time
Black-Eyed Peas
1 - 1½ hours
30 - 45 minutes
Green Split Peas
30 - 45 minutes


Friday, June 8, 2012

BPA in Canned Food

In recent years, alarming news about Bisphenol-A (BPA) has lead many consumers to look for alternatives to plastic waterbottles, tupperware, and even children’s toys.  BPA is an industrial chemical used in the production of most synthetic plastics, and has been seen to mimic the body’s natural hormones, classifying it as an endocrine disruptor.  In particular, BPA mimics estrogen, which is cause for concern in cancer, infertility, weight gain, altered immune function, early puberty, behavioral disorders, heart disease, diabetes, and liver toxicity.  In October 2010, the Canadian government added BPA to Canada’s list of toxic substances.

A less acknowledged but highly important source of BPA to be aware of is canned food; the liner present inside cans contains BPA.  Although manufacturing costs for BPA-free cans are 2.2 cents higher than that of cans containing BPA, some companies have made the choice to go without.

In the search for BPA-free canned food, examples of brands to choose include Eden Organics (canned beans) and Vital Choice (canned fish).  This article contains the full list, and is informative for how to make decisions at the grocery store: 7 Companies You Can Trust to Use BPA-Free Cans

While it is important to choose BPA-free cans when buying canned food, it is also important to keep in mind that all canned items are still processed.  Canned foods tend to contain high levels of sodium and lower levels of nutrients compared to their fresh counterparts.  To get the most nutrition out of your food, it is important to be mindful about consuming freshly prepared foods more often.  Check back soon for tips on preparing different varieties of cooked beans for using in all your favorite bean salad and chili recipes!



Friday, June 1, 2012

My Journey, Thus Far

Everyone who knows me, knows how much I love the west coast.  Growing up in British Columbia, I never dreamed I would move away from its peaceful serenity.  After completing high school on Saltspring Island, I moved to Vancouver to attend the University of British Columbia where I earned a Bachelor of Science with honours in Nutritional Sciences.  A true yogi, I strived for a life of balance and continued to nurture my passions throughout my university education.

The Chief, Second Peak - Squamish, BC

Life was amazing – however, I felt somewhat unfulfilled.  I knew that there was so much more to health than the nutrition I had studied thus far, and I had the desire to learn everything I could about the human body and all complementary and alternative approaches to health.  I had begun to appreciate the importance of nourishing not only the body, but also the mind and the soul.  I wanted to live a nourishing life not only for myself, but more importantly to evoke this passion in others.

I discovered The Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine through family connections and personal experiences with naturopathic doctors, and ultimately my career path became clear.  I moved to Toronto in January 2010 to pursue another four years of education to become a naturopathic doctor, a profession which I have already found to be more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.   

When I initially made the decision to move here, I didn't realize how huge of a life change it would be.  It has been such a remarkable journey already, and yet I often feel as if I have hardly begun.  I have grown in ways I couldn't have foreseen three years ago; the amount I have learned about naturopathic medicine, and myself, is indescribable.

May 2012 marked the beginning of my one-year internship at The Robert Schad Naturopathic Clinic in Toronto, and I couldn't be more excited!  I am thrilled to have the opportunity to provide naturopathic care to the community while gaining invaluable experience working with patients under the supervision of licensed naturopathic doctors.

Earlier this year while volunteering in Nicaragua with Natural Doctors International, I was reminded that we can nourish our soul, mind and body from wherever we are in the world.  A lagoon at the top of a volcano on the island of Ometepe; a yoga studio in downtown Toronto; running along Kits beach; exploring the nature trails of Ontario; connecting with patients in the clinic or a cashier at the grocery store; or simply having kale and quinoa salad for lunch.

Reflecting on these experiences and sharing them with you is what helps me to lead and teach a nourishing life, and I have come to realize that this is the theme of my journey.  I hope you will take part in my journey by checking back often for naturopathic news, health tips, and updates about the path I am on.  I would love it if you left a comment now and then - I appreciate so much all of your continued interest and support!

In the wise words of John Lennon, "Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans."  And so I wish for each of you health, peace and serenity, wherever you happen to reside in the world.

Ann-Scarlett Cooper, BSc (Hons), CCNM ND 2013