The truth about this salsa

Salsa is “sauce” in Spanish. It comes from the Latin “salsus” for savory food. Today, the word salsa means a lot more than a spicy dip for your chips. Salsa music took over the world and now salsa brings to mind the image of a gorgeous couple dancing in sensual embrace. I do not mind that you have this beautiful image in your mind when reading “Science Salsa”, but the truth must be said, I meant to call my blog that way because of the sauce.

Delicious, spicy, and flavorful, but common, home-made, family-recipe salsa. No fancy dancing here, even if we may dance salsa occasionally.

Why not “Science Sauce” or “Salsa de Ciencia”? Well, this is a bilingual blog, with a bilingual name, from a bilingual author. My personal recipe has a flavor that is unapologetic Latin-American, rooted in my childhood spent in Colombia and Perú. Sauce cannot describe it properly, it needs to be salsa! I did my PhD studies and postdoctoral work in the US and the science that I generate and consume is mostly in English language. It needs to be science!

I gave you some clues about my identity with the tittle of my blog. My information is public and you are more than welcome to visit the “about me” link to learn more about my background, or my page for more information. Please don’t expect pictures of my (living) family or other private stuff, but you can read Science Salsa with my commitment that you will get my sincere attempt to bring you some flavorful science. Just the way I can tell you about it, with no gimmicks or imposter voices.

Fun fact about spicy salsa: did you know that the “hot” chemical in peppers affect small proteins in your body called TRPV1 ion channels? TRPV1 are normally in nerve fibers that sense pain and extreme heat. That is why spicy hot food makes you sweat and it is sometimes painful to eat. The “science salsa” idea came when I was thinking about my research on TRPV1 channels and their influence in chronic pain. TRPV1 channels are all around our body, not only your tongue. Nobody realizes their eyes are covered by nerve endings that have TRPV1 channels… until they are cutting hot peppers for salsa and make the mistake of rubbing their eyes. Why we have those pain receptors in our corneas? How did pepper plants develop a chemical that affect our pain receptors (but not bird’s pain receptors)? Why humans like a little pain with their food? Those are some of the questions in science that I think would we fun to discuss with you in the future.

Diabetes and hispanic health; we are what we eat

Bandeja Paisa. Image (c) Ivan F. Gonzalez
Bandeja Paisa. Image (c) Ivan F. Gonzalez

November 14th was world diabetes day, a day to mark on your calendar!

Diabetes complications drastically affect your quality of life and cut your life expectancy. Some risk factors such as age and ethnicity are unavoidable, but type 2 diabetes is often preventable and can be treated by changing what you eat and by exercising more.

This advice is well-known, but the number of new patients is not decreasing. More than 371 million people have diabetes worldwide, and the number of people with diabetes is increasing in every country. In the US, the Latino population has experienced an increasing percentage of people diagnosed with diabetes; from 6.3% in 1997 to 9.3% in 2010 (CDC age-adjusted data). Hispanics are hit harder than other populations in the US. The Office of Minority Health reported that: “Mexican Americans are almost twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be diagnosed with diabetes by a physician. They have higher rates of end-stage renal disease, caused by diabetes, and they are 50% more likely to die from diabetes as non-Hispanic whites.”  Latino mortality rates caused by diabetes even break the “Latino epidemiological paradox” that  seemly gives some protection to Hispanics against the health pitfalls associated with lower average socioeconomic standing. Why?

I do not have an answer. The Latino/Hispanic population is very diverse and difficult to characterize, and is by no means a monolithic block: there are differences in how hard diabetes is affecting Latinos of different heritages: Puerto Ricans are the most affected with 11.2% of their population diagnosed with diabetes;  followed by Mexican Americans with 10.2%; and Cubans with 7.3%.

As a Latino, I know I have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes than the general population. I can’t change that, but I can cut other risk factors, such as obesity and sedentary lifestyle.

Here is where I get to the part of “we area what we eat”. My grandfather in rural Colombia never had salad. He wouldn’t eat “grass” (salad), because that was cow’s food. His meals were high in calories from starch and fat that he needed for the hard work at the dairy farm, and later as a blue-collar worker for the city of Medellin. Fruit, however, was easily available and he ate it very often. He moved from rural to urban without changing his diet, and I cannot blame him. One of my favorite traditional Colombian dishes is the “bandeja paisa”: white rice with red beans, pork sausage, blood sausage, ground beef, fried plantain, fried pork belly, fried egg, arepa (corn bread like fat tortillas), avocado, and onion-and-tomato sauce. It is delicious, and I highly recommend you to try it,  but eating it regularly is a recipe for obesity. The estimated caloric value for a portion of bandeja paisa is 2,000 calories, more than the total recommended daily value for a 200-lb male working in an office. That was lunch for my grandfather after having a hefty breakfast and before a similar dinner. He worked hard and he wasn’t overweight, but after retirement he started gaining weight fast despite being quite active and not having a car.

Latinos living in a city cannot eat as many calories as our grandparents used to eat. We need to adapt our traditional cuisine to a new environment and requirements and balance our meals. While it might seem easy to “abandon ship” and start eating what the rest of America is eating, the prevalence of sodas, high-sugar snacks and fast food don’t make this jump the best option. I believe it is possible to keep our traditions but to improve them and modernize them to reflect new realities. Less fat is not necessarily less flavor, and we have a lot to gain by reducing our chances of becoming diabetic. Enjoying delicious Hispanic recipes with lower calories is possible, and to have fruit and fresh vegetables available at home for snacks is easy. If eating better and being more active will keep us healthier, why not to start today?

I wrote this post inspired by my friend Elisa, from the blog larval metamorphosis. She is the host of this month’s Diversity in Science blog Carnival in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. Contact her if you want to be involved. Thanks!

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