Years ago, one of my university lecturers asked me what my favourite living organism was. I have to admit, the first thing that popped to mind was Halle Berry, but realising the lecturer was probably looking for something a little more donnish, I paused and tried to look a bit more intelligent before answering him.
“Yeast” I answered. He nodded with an approving smile before telling me it was a good answer. I knew that it was as I had been reading about yeast the day before and had been fascinated by what I had learnt. Yeast is a living organism, a single-celled fungus just 3 thousandths of a millimetre across. There are around 24 species of yeast, but it is the one called Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which means “sugar-eating fungus,” which has changed our lives on this planet, for the better.
Turns out that much of what we depend on to live today would not be possible if it were not for yeast. I kid you not. Without it there would be no bread, no biofuels, no insulin and perhaps more shockingly, no beer or wine. In fact, no alcohol at all. So, what would a world without yeast be like? In a word, sober. Probably sadder, too.
The first leavened bread loaves were thought to be made by Egyptians between 3,000-5000 years ago, when beer foam was first added to bread dough. Discovering accurate data for such events are on the anorexic side of slim. Leavened, or bread, risen because of the addition of yeast, is now eaten in almost every culture on Earth.
Wine becomes alcoholic due to wild yeasts, and was recorded as first being made from vineyards in Tbilisi in Georgia, some 4000 years ago although some think that wine has been around a lot longer, but was not farmed on such a large scale. Maybe it caused such bad hangovers that nobody felt like recording anything until one day, a Georgian picked up a stone and chiselled away details of what they drank at his stag do the night before.
Wild yeasts are present on the grape skins, but commercial wine today needs to have yeast added. It’s a simple process. A packet of wine yeast is opened and sprinkled directly on top of the grape juice. There is no need to stir as it will dissolve on its own. Once the yeast is added, they just let it be, as Lennon and McCartney would say.
So, how old is the oldest bottle of wine? An ancient, intact glass bottle of wine, dating back to the 4th century, was discovered during the excavation of a Roman nobleman’s tomb in modern-day Germany. It has not been opened but scientists believe it to still be drinkable. To the best of my knowledge, it’s still sitting in a museum somewhere, maybe waiting for someone to open it when the drinks run out at the staff Christmas party.
The oldest evidence of beer comes from forensic traces on fragments of 7000-year-old Iranian pottery. Beer was drunk regularly by most humans in ancient times as water was often dirty in those days and caused illnesses, whereas the alcohol in beer discourages bacteria from infecting the beer thus making it safer to drink.
With no leaven bread, our diets would be less dependent on crops like wheat and far more on root crops such as potatoes and imported foods like rice. Imagine no more toast, no more bacon or tofu sandwiches. Since the lockdown began in March 2020, we seemed to have turned into a nation of bread makers, and the prime riser of these must be the sourdough loaf.
Sourdough does not need any added yeast to get it going but works with just the wild yeasts that are all around us, in our gardens, on fruit skins, on our computer keyboards etc.
Yeast cells are different from animal and plant cells which is why they are not classed with them. They have a kingdom of their own. They start respiring carbon dioxide as soon as they come into contact with flour or sugar. These are the bubbles in your sourdough starter for example. They are actually expelled yeast fart bubbles! As long as there is a supply of oxygen, yeasts crank out carbon dioxide and water as by-products. But if oxygen is scarce or sugars are available, the cells start a fermentation process, which causes them to spit out ethanol, more commonly known as alcohol.
Baking is a very aromatic process, with most of us loving the smell of freshly baked bread, and yeast is one of the causes of that delicious aroma. Estate agents know this only too well and often encourage anyone hoping to sell their house, to bake a loaf just before showing anyone around.
Whilst researching this article, I came across an unusual ingredient in bread making that was written about in ancient Rome; Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist and philosopher, was the first to suggest using dead wasps to help make bread!
It works because wasps get coated in wild yeast as they fly around searching for food and this provides what is needed to make a loaf rise but please, don’t try this at home! All you really need to make a healthy sourdough starter at home is wheat or rye flour and water; the yeast and bacteria floating around your home will do the rest.
Fortunately for the human race, yeast is here to stay. In fact, it’s very hard to actually kill. You can starve it, dry it out and even freeze it, but if you give it a little sugar and some water… leave it for a bit and Wham Bam, you have the start of a party – booze n bread.
Jerry Short 2020
It’s a vegetable, which might surprise anyone who says they don’t like veg, whilst stuffing their face with chips.
In fact, it was the first vegetable to go to space when experimental seed potatoes went into orbit aboard the Columbia space shuttle in 1995. It is not known, however, if they survived when the Colombia broke up during re-entry in 2003, but presumably those potatoes can be said to have well and truly had their chips.
The average spud is about 100 calories and highly nutritious as they contain vitamins B and C, potassium, iron, protein, fibre and are 99.9% fat-free. They are reckoned to be the food of choice, should you suddenly decide you only eat one type of food. You can survive on eating nothing but potatoes, as Chris Voigt, from the Washington State Potato Commission, found out when he went on a potato-only diet for 2 months as a marketing gimmick “to remind people about the nutritional value of potatoes.”
He surprised himself at his health check at the end of his mono-fast, as he was found to have lost 10kg in weight and considerably reduced his cholesterol level.
Sir Francis Drake is commonly credited with bringing the potato into England, but he didn’t. It turns out that all those school history books were wrong. The potato first came into Europe in 1570, brought back by conquistadors returning to Spain from South America. They found that the Incas had been happily munching potatoes in Peru for the last 8000 years.
The Spanish King had probably asked his troops to keep an eye open for anything made of gold, but if they came across any interesting new foods, perhaps something that would go well with a beef patty, or fried fish for instance, bring that back too. But it wasn’t all take. They did give the Inca population, measles, and gonorrhoea.
The Spanish loved the potato and it soon started to spread around Europe before arriving in Britain in 1588.
What sealed its success was that it was easy to grow, coped well with our generally damp climate, and proved to be the best crop to feed families with small gardens, as the yield was very high. You can grow up to 10 potatoes from a single plant.
In Ireland, the country quickly adopted the potato as the crop to grow, since one acre of potatoes and the milk from a single cow was enough to feed a large family. However, the potato famine of 1847 changed it all. It caused over a million deaths and drove over a million and a half to emigrate to America. In fact, it had such a profound impact that over 170 years later, the population has still not recovered to its prefamine level.
Globally, over 80% of the potato crop can be used for human consumption, which is far more than that for harvests of wheat and corn. The UN has been promoting the potato as the best crop to improve food security in developing countries.
The UK’s most popular potato is the Maris Piper, but can it hold out against new varieties, which can be genetically pre-programmed to resist infection and disease? If we are to become truly spud-smart, we may have to develop potatoes that incorporate health giving properties within their makeup.
In 2014 an American company developed a genetically modified potato that lowered the eater’s chance of developing cancer. Fancy a bowl of mash with a built-in corona virus inoculation? Or how-about drinking alcohol made from potatoes with a built-in hangover cure?
One day, in the not-too-distant-future, it has been predicted that we may be able to buy potatoes enhanced with mood altering drugs such as THC and MDMA which will give a whole different interpretation to the name, Spud-You-Like.
Jerry Short 2020
There’s no hot drink as pleasurable to sip than a cup of tea at its perfect drinking temperature but getting tea at its best needs a certain degree of patience.
It can be lip scaldingly hot at first. Timing is crucial here. Wait too long and it will be disappointingly cool, but there is a perfect temperature for each of us. I know that for me, it is 57.3C precisely. I know this because I am a sad tea anorak and have measured it.
My wife can tolerate far hotter drinks and food, than me. She likes to drink tea at an astonishing 62.5C. Her mouth must have an asbestos lining as she can also plough through, what is to me, a scream inducingly hot lasagna, with all the indifference of a gazelle munching dew-kissed blades of grass.
Where I do excel, though, is my ability to consume food that is cold.
I can happily eat leftovers straight from the fridge whereas my wife will insist on them being heated laboriously in a pan, or a microwave.
Anyone that enjoys pizza at 4c, fresh out of the salad crisper drawer, will know what I mean. A food’s flavour often improves after a night in a fridge.
Stews seem to marinate well, their flavours bumping, sometimes entwining with each other like a bunch of 6th formers at an end-of-term party. It’s surprising how flavours change after a night of mellowing together in total darkness and the inside of your fridge is possibly the darkest place in your house, sealed, as it is, with an airtight door. But, I digress. Where was I? Ah yes, temperature of drinks.
According to German beer experts, (how the hell do people get jobs like that?) quality bottled lagers, shouldn't be served any colder than 6C and any warmer than 9C, and not “as cold as possible” as many marketers would have us believe.
Adverts where icy beers are served so cold that nearby windows start to frost over, are frowned upon by those in the know (those bloody beer experts again. Note to self, search online for any beer expert vacancies)
And what about wine? According to Wine Enthusiast magazine, red wine is best served between 12c - 16c which is actually “chilled” for much of the tropical world.
Room temperatures vary wildly, depending where on our spinning globe you live. If you happen to reside in Mitribah, Kuwait, and, like most locals, don’t have air-con, it can reach 53.9C in August which, co-inincedently, was the hottest the oven in my first student flat would ever reach.
And strangely, is only a smidgeon cooler than my preferred hot tea temperature. It’s a funny old world.
Jerry Short 2019
Coffee is a big part of our lives and a delicious alternative to us hating each other every morning.
As well as percolating its way into our hearts, coffee has ground its way into the heart of our homes, too. How many drinks can you think of that have an item of furniture named after them? The coffee table was first mentioned in 1938 but has been a must-have item of furniture since the 1950s.
Nutritional scientists have found that drinking coffee regularly can have powerful medical benefits, and there are research papers that suggest drinking a lot of coffee can lead to an extended lifespan. The French philosopher, Voltaire, drank up to 50 cups of coffee a day and died aged 83, which was a remarkable feat in the 1700s when life expectancy was just 37 years.
I haven’t listed longevity as one of the ten benefits in this article as the jury is still out on that one, but to learn about coffee’s health benefits, choose a comfy chair next to your coffee table, builders’ tea table, or perhaps you’ve bought an oat-milk table in the hope that it may catch on. Sit down and relax whilst I take you on a quick journey to look into the health-giving properties that coffee can offer. (And for this article, you can relax your cynical genes as I am only using clinically proven data (each fact’s sources are listed at the end)
The primary reason that most of us consume coffee is that as well as having a great taste, it contains the stimulant, caffeine, which is the most consumed psychoactive substance in the world. We crave it. That’s what the yearn for coffee in the morning is all about. It’s your body’s way of telling you to feed your caffeine addiction as soon as possible.
With that in mind, it is comforting to know that it is actually doing us some good, as well as sating our addiction.
Surprisingly, coffee provides high levels of antioxidants which help fight free radicals. That term may sound like a bearded, bohemian freedom-fighter, but free radicals are the bad guys. They are unstable atoms that can damage our cells, causing cancers, and speeding up our aging process. Recent research in Norway and Finland found that around 64% of all the antioxidants in our diet comes not from fruit & veg, but from coffee. In the States, Professor Joe A. Vinson, at the University of Scranton, analysed the antioxidant content of more than 100 different food & drink items.
He found that the average American consumed 1,299 milligrams of antioxidants daily from their coffee, surprising really, considering how awful most American coffee is. This is followed by tea at 294 milligrams, bananas at 76 milligrams and scraping in last with a pulled muscle, corn at 48 milligrams.
Coffee reduces our chances of developing type 2 diabetes. There are now 15 different studies that show this. Frank Hu, an epidemiology professor at Harvard, has viewed studies that tracked 200,000 people who drank at least six cups of coffee a day. He found that these people were 35% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those people who drank less coffee. The results were the same, regardless of a drinker’s country, weight, or gender.
Studies observed that people who drink the most coffee have up to a 50% lower risk of getting this condition. One study showed a reduction as high as 67%
If you are in pain, coffee taken in combination with ibuprofen, is more effective
Using a painkiller with caffeine reduces levels of discomfort. Research has shown that taking 200mg of ibuprofen with 100mg of caffeine is the most efficient way of dealing with pain. If you suffer from migraines, it may help to swig the ibuprofen down with an espresso or two.
Coffee improves our energy levels and can improve our memory recall.
After we drink coffee, the caffeine is absorbed into our blood and travels to our brains where caffeine blocks the inhibitory neurotransmitter, adenosine. This increases other neurotransmitters such as dopamine which are associated with feelings of well-being.
Many studies show that coffee consumption improves memory recall, mood, reaction times and combat tiredness.
Coffee can help break down body fats
Caffeine is found in almost every commercial fat-burning supplement — and for good reason. It’s one of the few natural substances proven to aid fat burning.
Studies show that caffeine can boost our metabolic rates by 3–11% and specifically increase fat burning by as much as 10% in obese individuals and 29% in thinner people.
Coffee has a lot of nutrients. A single cup contains:
Riboflavin (vitamin B2): 11% of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI).
Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5): 6% of the RDI.
Manganese and potassium: 3% of the RDI.
Magnesium and niacin (vitamin B3): 2% of the RDI.
Though this may not seem like a big deal, most people enjoy numerous cups a day, so these amounts can quickly add up, helping our nutritional health.
Coffee can measurably improve physical performance
Caffeine stimulates our nervous system, signalling fat cells to break down body fat. Runners in an experiment were able to cover up to 2 miles more than a placebo group.
In a 1,500-meter run, regular coffee drinkers were 4.2 seconds faster than those drinking decaf. In a study of cyclists, caffeine was shown to be better than carbs or water, increasing workload by 7.4%, compared to 5.2% in the carb group.
Caffeine can improve our physical performance by 12%, on average so it makes sense to have a cup of coffee before heading to the gym.
Caffeine increases our adrenaline levels in our blood which is a fight-or-flight hormone which prepares our bodies for intense physical exertion. The resulting breaking down of body fats makes free fatty acids available as a fuel.
Coffee appears to protect against two types of cancer: liver and colorectal or bowel cancer. Globally, liver cancer kills around 700,000 people a year, while colorectal cancer kills 500,000. Research shows that coffee drinkers have up to a 40% lower risk of liver cancer and a separate study of close to half a million people, showed that drinkers of 4-5 coffees a day reduced their risk of bowel cancer by around 15%.
Interestingly, coffee may protect against cirrhosis of the liver, too — people who drink 4 or more cups per day have up to an 80% lower risk.
Dementia is a neurodegenerative condition. The most common type is Alzheimer’s and like all dementias, it is a fatal, with no known cure. It is the UK’s leading cause of death for anyone over the age of 80, but there are a number of things you can do to reduce your chances of getting it, such as eating fewer processed foods, exercising and drinking coffee. Studies show that coffee drinkers have up to a 65% lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.
Coffee consumption may lower our risk of developing Parkinson's disease, too, which is caused by the loss of neurons in the brain that generate dopamine. Studies have shown that coffee drinkers have a far lower risk of Parkinson's, with a risk reduction of between 32 and 60%.
Finally, I don’t want anyone who reads these death statistics to become a bit depressed, but if you do, I have something to cheer you up: Coffee is known to help diminish depression, and can increase your wellbeing.
Around one in 6 people in the UK will experience clinical depression at some point and in a Harvard study, women who drank 4 or more cups of coffee per day had a 20% lower risk of becoming depressed. Intriguingly it makes no reference to men, who don’t tend to talk openly about feelings. Maybe they just bottle it all up until they burst into tears, sobbing on a best mate’s shoulder in a pub garden somewhere.
All things considered, coffee may be one of the healthiest drinks on the planet. Now what was I going to do next? Christ, I can’t remember, have I got dementia? Oh, yes, just remembered. I’m meeting a friend for a coffee.
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