Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Great Buffet Abuse Tour - Part 3: Vegas Begins

The first time I visited Las Vegas nearly 10 years ago, I hit the buffets without any rules. I just hurled myself into it headlong, attacking every section with as much gusto as the previous one, until the tightening grip of intestinal overload started to bite.

I recall valiantly battling with the Chinese station, knowing it was the only thing left between me and dessert. I felt like Rocky in the final rounds of an epic fight, my speech slurred, my chewing increasingly laboured as, across the table, 'Adrian' (my buffet wing man), developed a light sweat on his brow.

Then, the schoolboy error, as I launched into the dessert section with scarcely a rest and went straight for the money shot, a huge bowl of apple crumble with custard. Only grim determination got me through the rest of the bowl. But then it was all over - the towel was in the ring and the belly factory had already blown the whistle. A difficult night ensued.

But that was then. On this trip, now a seasoned pro, I hit the Luxor buffet with confidence, with no intention of going anywhere near the desserts.

Buffet master rule #3: skip dessert

I'd done a gym session that morning and was hankering for a big protein hit, so my opening gambit was a trio of pork, chicken and prime rib. The Luxor buffet was light on seafood, but after the LA Hilton I was ready for a break from that. Next, some cod with an unnamed meat. Finally, muscles and shredded pork.

On the way out, I breezed nonchalantly past the substantial cake section.

Luxor - not the best quality, but as with any half-decent buffet, plenty of big meat

The next morning, I decide to be more targeted about buffet selection. Mrs M was flying in to meet me that day, and I wanted to make sure we picked a good buffet that night. I found a list of the top 10 Vegas buffets.

I know what you're thinking, and you're right - she's a very lucky lady. While other men would be hunting round for some dimly lit, small-portion-serving Italian restaurant where the waiter presents a rose to women diners... I was instead doing the decent thing and finding somewhere serving plenty of food with efficient, business-like staff and lighting good enough to do justice to the 3D glory of a plate loaded with food.

While I waited for Mrs M, I busied myself with a trip to Wholefoods. Say what you like about their vegetarian agenda and curious belief that using raw organic cane sugar somehow makes any product healthy, they do stock an impressive array of nuts.

Another weapon of the master buffet tactician is the dessert substitute. I often use unsweetened cocoa powder at home to quench chocolate cravings, but it's not always that easy to consume as a powder. At Wholefoods I founds bars of solid cocoa. Perfect. These, and a wide selection of raw, unsalted nuts formed the basis of my dessert shield.

Buffet mastery rule #4: obtain strategic dessert substitutes

Wholefoods: strange ideas, but a great nut selection...

When Mrs M arrived, she opted for the Planet Hollywood spice market buffet, where a new challenge emerged. In part 3 - alcohol control, a crucial component of buffet mastery.

See Also:
The Great Buffet Abuse Tour - Part 1
The Great Buffet Abuse Tour - Part 2: Boston and LA
The Great Buffet Abuse Tour - Part 4: The Weakening
The Great Buffet Abuse Tour - Part 5: The Collapse
... Read more

Friday, 29 October 2010

The Great Buffet Abuse Tour - Part 2: Boston and LA

The trip started in Boston, where, at the hotel breakfast buffet, I made my first play.

I was having a late breakfast instead of lunch because jet lag had driven me to eat early the previous night. Having paid for the all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast, a closer inspection revealed that smoked salmon, eggs and fruit were the only things I could eat.

So I ate salmon and eggs until no more remained, methodically working through the neatly rolled salmon rolls, one plate at a time, while the manager eyed me with a mixture of suspicion and concern from behind the bar. He could see I was a pro.

Smoked salmon, eggs and fruit - again, again and again

Next stop, LA, where I hit the jackpot.

Whilst my own hotel did not have a buffet (I was outraged), the nearby Universal City Hilton had an impressive seafood buffet, I was told.

This turned out to be no exaggeration. There was top quality sushi and sashimi, lobster thermidor, perfectly grilled salmon in several different sauces, crab claws, oysters and of course the obligatory prime rib. There were also many other stations: when you get lost during your first visit, you know it's a serious buffet.

I hit the Hilton twice in two days. Unfortunately, on day two, I was in such a hurry to launch an attack on the stations I'd not done justice to the night before, that I forgot my camera. So I had to use my inadequate Blackberry to capture the meals.

Day 1 at the Universal City Hilton - not taking full advantage of the seafood options

Day 2 - crab claws, sashimi, lobster thermidor and various other meats

In part 3, Vegas - the buffet mecca. Buffets so large, they provide motorised vehicles for diners. Vast, underground facilities into which, over the years, people have disappeared never to return...

See Also:

The Great Buffet Abuse Tour - Part 1

The Great Buffet Abuse Tour - Part 3: Vegas Begins
The Great Buffet Abuse Tour - Part 4: The Weakening
The Great Buffet Abuse Tour - Part 5: The Collapse
... Read more

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Great Buffet Abuse Tour - Part 1

Buffets. You've got to love them. Yet I have to travel all the way to the US to get any decent action. The UK should be ashamed.

For Paleo folk, buffets are great. For an incomparably greedy Paleo person like me, they are beyond compare.

The timing of my recent trip to the US seemed especially good. I was in the final few weeks of a training experiment ('Leangains') that involves daily fasting and the consumption of a large number of calories during an eating window. This was destiny.

Previously, my posts about gluttony have typically been in the context of shame, documenting falls from grace after too much booze. In those cases I had eaten too much of the wrong kind of food - a very different proposition.

Could I play the buffets buffets of Vegas like a professional, or, as with gambling, did the house always win?

As I prepared for the trip, I decided that the Paleo buffet master does two things differently. First, he or she sticks to the foods they would normally eat, instead of being sucked into a vortex of indulgence.

Paleo buffet mastery rule #1: eat good food, avoid the junk

Second, he or she makes their gluttony pay for itself, becoming warrior-like in their meal frequency and timing - one large meal a day.

Paleo buffet mastery rule #2: make your gluttony pay for itself

My plan was to apply the principle of daily fasting to holiday gluttony. It should be possible, I reasoned, to enjoy unconstrained dining without returning home at the end of the holiday with a ruined gut and 3 lbs of extra fat. I would eat bucket loads of Paleo buffet food and regularly fast in between.

This would be effort and reward in perfect harmony - instead of (as on previous occasions) reward, reward, reward, and that creeping feeling of wanting it all to stop.

It didn't quite go according to plan, but I learned a few things along the way. In part 2, Boston, where my opening gambit was unfeasible amounts of smoked salmon at the breakfast buffet.

See Also:

The Great Buffet Abuse Tour - Part 2: Boston and LA
The Great Buffet Abuse Tour - Part 3: Vegas Begins
The Great Buffet Abuse Tour - Part 4: The Weakening
The Great Buffet Abuse Tour - Part 5: The Collapse
... Read more

Friday, 1 October 2010

Tropical Sun Replies - "Our Additives are Okay"

If you have been following my dialogue with Tropical Sun about the additives in their coconut milk, you'll be pleased to know I have had a response to my most recent email. Here is what they said:

Thank you for your further email and we hope to dispel some of the concerns you raised. First of all, sorry for the contradiction in the previous reply. It was actually meant to read the “quality” has not changed, not the “content”.

Often people tend to misinterpret the natural separation of coconut milk in the can as spoilage, thus we took the decision to change our manufacturer of coconut milk and after a number of trials we selected the coconut milk that you now currently have.

So let’s get some understanding instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We respect the fact that you are trying to ensure people have great tasting food, and in that regard we share the same passion.

Coconut milk is not the liquid inside a coconut (this is ‘coconut water’), although this liquid does make a satisfying drink. Rather, it is made by squeezing the grated flesh of a coconut with some hot water resulting in a rich white liquid that looks very much like cow's milk. This would normally last around 1-2 days if refrigerated immediately.

You also have to understand that due to the nature of our modern diets, various ingredients/foods have been processed and in order to enjoy them in a way that we are now accustomed to various manufacturing techniques are used.

Without passing judgement on these, we, the British public, demand for example strawberries and grapes out of season etc. So whilst I appreciate your sentiment for “food without crap” in it, I also would advise that to label all additives as universally BAD is a little over zealous [and perhaps unrealistic].

An “E” label signifies that something has been added to the product: it doesn’t make it bad in and of itself. In the UK an "E number" has, unfortunately, become something of a pejorative term for artificial food additives. It may surprise some of your readers to learn, however, that there are undoubtedly many products promoting themselves as "free of E numbers" even though most of the natural ingredients contain components that also have an E number such as vitamin C (E300).

If a food additive has an E number this shows it has passed safety tests and been approved for use throughout the European Union. This approval is monitored, reviewed and amended in the light of new scientific data. It is also possible that some labels do not use the dreaded “E” prefix, and instead provide a customary common name (e.g. Citric acid, instead of E330). You decide which you prefer.

I would also like to mention that our coconut milk has one of the highest percentages of real coconut extract inside the can available. This is the amount of pure coconut that is used to make the end product. This determines its richness and flavour and the reason why we believe ours is a PREMIUM coconut milk. Please compare it with some of the other brands you have mentioned previously.

So now our coconut milk contains thickener, stabilisers and acidity regulators. Let’s examine each:

Thickeners help give body to food in the same way as adding flour thickens a sauce, they improve consistency and stabilise emulsions (such as coconut milk). Corn starch imparts no additional flavour to food.

We use cornstarch which is just what it sounds like: starch derived from corn. As with anything, there are pros and cons to its use. Cornstarch is used as a natural thickening agent and does not contain any gluten in contrast to other common alternatives.

Stabilisers and emulsifiers help give food a consistent texture and help mix ingredients together that would normally separate, such as [coconut] oil and water. Stabilisers prevent them from separating again. Without stabilisers you would end up with cream on top and lighter watery milk on the bottom.

We use Carrageenan, Guar gum and Carboxy methyl cellulose. The first two are naturally occurring and extracted from seaweed and shrubs and the latter from cellulose.

Acidity regulators change or maintain the acidity of foods and include buffers, acids, alkalis, and neutralising agents. We use citric acid which is found naturally in citrus fruits.

So, in summary, our product does contain ‘additives’, albeit ones which have been taken from natural sources. Their purpose is to enable us to deliver a stable product of appealing quality: none of the additives is there to introduce or enhance flavour. As far as other similar products are concerned, you must take your enquiries direct to the relevant manufacturers.

We hope this has gone some way to answering your questions. We thank you for concern and hope you will continue to use our products. We would suggest, if it helps, that our creamed coconut is additive free and can be used for many similar purposes to the milk.

We hope this has been helpful and whilst we can’t proclaim to be experts on all things scientific, we can try to help your readers understand what is, I think you’ll agree, an issue which is not quite as clear cut as it might first appear.

Kind regards
Customer Services

Here is my reply:

Hi Kev,

Once again, many thanks for continuing to engage with us. By replying a second time, you have catapulted yourselves into second place in the customer service rankings for Pay Now Live Later. Your honest approach is also refreshing.

The first thing I'd like to make clear is that I appreciate the commercial realities under which you operate, and am aware of the preferences of modern consumers. So of course I don't expect to change your mind about how you make your coconut milk.

However, I would like to help you understand a different position, held by a minority. This is important for you because it's a growing minority. We are the people who scrutinise ingredients on foods and question the motives of companies and those who regulate them. We operate on the assumption that the best form of a food is in it's pure form, and will always choose unadulterated products over the alternatives.

You do make the valid point that not all additives are all unhealthy. I agree that there is a tendency to demonise all ingredients, when some of them are okay.

But why is this? Let me offer you an explanation:

First, consumers don't always understand what the additives are. Often they have complex-sounding names. Even when the names seem familiar, we are not sure what the health implications might be. Familiarity is no guarantee that an ingredient is okay.

Second, there is an issue of trust. Many consumers simply don't trust companies to use only healthy additives - even when it is with the best of intentions (as in your case, perhaps.)

Misinformation is rife in the food industry, and many of us would simply rather be safe than sorry. Your use of the N-word ('natural') is a good example, I am afraid. Without wishing to appear facetious, digitalis can be extracted from fox glove plants, a small amount of which will kill you. There are plenty of natural ingredients that are anything but good.

What this means is that a subset of consumers will avoid your product, regardless of the realities of the reasons for the additives, whether they are 'natural' and whether or not there is evidence they cause harm.

As it happens, this same subset of consumers are probably also trying NOT to eat fruit and vegetables out of season, contrary to the trend you mentioned in your email; for us, finding separated coconut milk that is not creamy is a good sign... because we know that real coconut milk does get separated like this.

So where does this leave us? I guess it leaves me having respect for you as a company because of your honesty and communicativeness, but still no longer a customer; but I hope this exchange has at least helped you to see that whilst your coconut milk may be homogeneous thanks to the stabilisers, your target market is not (sorry, bad joke I couldn't resist) ...and that there may be opportunities for you to exploit the growing trend towards real food.

In the meantime, I am trying my luck with this product. It claims not to need preservatives because of the UHT process and was reassuringly separated. It also seems to have a high coconut percentage because there is a lot of thick cream in there. And yet there is no list of ingredients on the carton - just the claim about being preservative free. As you say in your email, this is something I need to take up with them, not you.

I have one final question I hope you are willing to answer. Reader Matt recently commented:

I'm on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (similar to Paleo) for medical reasons (Ulcerative Colitis), and I'm allowed no starches or sugars. When I read the company's response, my first thought was, They were putting starches in there before, but new labeling requirements made them tell us. This is disconcerting for me because even micrograms of starch or sugar can send me to the toilet for days. When a company says it's PURE, we need to be able to believe that it's pure. They can cause great harm to someone like me who is sick, when they don't label honestly.

This got me wondering how many grams of corn starch are actually added to each tin. Can you tell us?

Clearly, for Matt, no amount is acceptable. But for me, I think knowing the scale of the additive would have the potential to influence how I feel about eating it.

Best Regards,


See Also:
Dear Tropical Sun - "Why is there Crap in My Coconut Milk?"
"Why is there Crap in my Coconut Milk?" - Tropical Sun's Perplexing Reply
After Much Searching... the Perfect Coconut Cream
... Read more