The Chemistry of Baking

Those that follow my ramblings already know about my passion for baking.

I love everything about bread: the flavour of a sourdough, the smell of a fresh baked cinnamon loaf, the sound of a cracking baguette crust…

What I also love about baking is the science behind it. Baking is based on carefully balanced formulas: the right amount of flour and yeast for an even rise, the exact proportion of water and flour for the perfect moisture, the correct order of ingredients for a smooth batter.

A slice of multigrain​ sourdough
Multigrain sourdough from Cliffside Heart Bakery for breakfast.

Continue reading “The Chemistry of Baking”


In gut we trust – we are what we eat

Bacteria have been around for a while (at least two and a half billion years) and will outlive us, humans. For many years, they have been accused of all evils and antibiotics were viewed as the holy grail for saving lives… Not anymore – bacteria are our allies!

Scientists are now realizing that there are 100 trillion bacteria that live in cooperation with and in our gut (making up what they call the gut microbiome). A big chunk of these microorganisms has such an important role in our wellbeing that scientists and health agencies are willing to spend millions of dollars studying them.

Previously, we talked about the role of such microorganisms in our guts, the importance of a balanced gut ecosystem and how our western way of life is killing our shielding gut bacteria. The good news is that the solution is in everyone’s mouth: we are what we eat.


Probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics – everyone has heard of them, maybe gave them a try but do we really understand their potential? 

What are they?

PROBIOTICS are live microorganisms which, when taken in adequate amounts, give us a health benefit. These microorganisms have to resist (at least, partially) the digestion process to reach the intestine and are naturally abundant in some food or may be ingested in the form of dietary supplements.

Their main function is to populate (or repopulate) the ecosystem with beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Enterococcus and Streptococcus, among others.

Probiotics, Prebiotics and Synbiotics
Probiotics, Prebiotics, and Synbiotics – what are they?

But seeding bacteria in our guts may not be enough. For a healthy gut, we need to feed these microorganisms with the proper food to promote their growth and activity – the PREBIOTICS. Examples include fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fermented foods.

Another emergent term is SYNBIOTICS. Basically, this encompasses all foods and nutritional supplements that combine pro- and prebiotic benefits.

What are the benefits of taking probiotics?

People take probiotics mostly to improve their digestive functions, but some studies state their positive effect on the immune status and in the prevention of certain diseases.

A healthy gut is a combination of multiple factors.
A healthy gut is a combination of multiple factors.


The list of benefits is ever growing; some medical claims are more evident than others. To keep abreast of all the information here are some helpful sources

  • for practical advice on probiotics
  • for a complete list of clinical claims check the Word Gastroenterology Organization’s website
  • For help on how to make Smart Choices on Probiotics and Prebiotics

How do probiotics work?

The normal interaction between gut microorganisms and their host is a win-win (symbiotic) relationship.

As you know, the intestine’s main function is to absorb nutrients and water essential for our survival. Bacteria help in the absorption of some vitamins, but they also stimulate our immune defense. Approximately 60% of the body’s immune cells are in the intestinal wall to protect us from allergies (from the foods we eat) and infections (from the pathogens that may occur there).

Probiotics (the live microorganisms) compete for food and a favourable environment with pathogens preventing colonization of opportunistic and pathogenic microorganisms and, at the same time, stimulate the intestinal cells’ immune response.

All that in exchange for some food and shelter. Great tenants we have, eh?

Cheers, Gisela

In gut we trust

My sister was right. I had an imbalance that I had to treat.

The antibiotic I took successfully cured my respiratory infection. It killed the enemy that was making me sick but also took down some good troops in the battle.

There are 10 times more bacteria in our body than human cells!

Gut microbiome: microscopic communities that live inside our gut

Inside your gut:  Amazing picture of the microscopic communities that live inside our gut; the gut cells are in blue, and the bacteria from the genus Firmicutes in yellow and Bacteroidetes in fuchsia. Credits: Popular Science and Kristen A. Earle, 2014 (Cell Host & Microbe)

A microscopic society of bacteria, protists (other unicellular cells), viruses and fungi colonize almost every part of our body without causing us any harm.

Scientists are now realizing that different communities (microbiomes) live in different habitats in our body (mouth, skin, bellybutton, vagina and, especially, in the gut) which is radically changing how we see either curative or preventive medicine.

The experiment

Going back to basics, almost 10 years ago scientists sampled bacteria from different parts of the body of 240 healthy individuals. The so-called Human Microbiome Project sought to understand the complex relationships between these microorganisms and humans.

This ground-breaking initiative was followed by other projects and, in 2012, the International Human Microbiome Consortium was formed.

The huge interest in this type of research is understandable: studies have demonstrated a connection between our microbiome composition and a number of chronic health conditions (gastrointestinal, autoimmune and cardiovascular diseases, obesity, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, asthma), as well as certain neurological diseases (Alzheimer) and behavioural changes (depression).

Scientists are also realizing that the microbiome can be an important ally for certain therapies. Gut microbes can help reduce inflammation and influence how the immune system deals with cancer, affecting the efficacy of certain anti-cancer drugs.

Our gut microbiome is under attack

Antibiotics, although developed to target specifically certain types of bacteria, can deeply disturb our gut microbial allies. A recent study showed that these drugs can have severe long-term impacts in the microbial community of the gut. The body may take up to a year to recover!

The typical Western diets (high in fat, cholesterol, sugar and salt and low in soluble and insoluble fibers) and stress also affects our gut microbiome ecosystem.

The rescue is in what we eat. Some solutions are easier to swallow than others: prebiotics, probiotics, and synbiotics but also… fecal transplants!

There is still a long way to go for this research, but it is clear to all that a definite way to optimize the gut flora is through a diverse and balanced diet.

All attempts to repair a dysfunctional gut community have in common the reestablishment of the primordial composition of the gut microbiome via probiotics (ingestion of live cultures) or even fecal transplants (yes… you read it right!). But this may not be enough – a proper environment needs to be fostered (with probiotics and synbiotics) to promote the good bacteria multiplication.

Stay tuned for more behind-the-scenes of a healthy gut. If you want to know more about the gut microbiota, check out the cool infographic below (available at the Gut Microbiota Worldwatch website).

Getting to know your gut microbiome by the Gut Microbiota & Health Section of the European Society of Neurogastroenterology and Motility (ESNM), Gut Microbiota Worldwatch.microbiotagraphic_en72


Have you heard about microbiomes? Will you think twice before taking an antibiotic?

Cheers, Gisela

What job would you have if you did not have to work for a living?

This is a question I ask my friends and acquaintances quite often.

If you could change your career path and not worry about anything, what would you be?

Sometimes their answers surprise me, other not so much. I get to know people on a different level and, it is interesting to see my friends’ dreams change over time.

I will be honest with you: my friends have pretty boring jobs but, when they are allowed to dream, they are spies, professional video gamers, documentary directors, lighthouse keepers, painters…

Me? I would be a baker.

And, while I would wait for the dough to rise, I would be a microscopist. And I would have a blog like this –

Bravo Sally Warring (follow her on Instagram)!

Note to self: prepare a post on the chemistry behind a savoury sourdough or a baguette’s crispy crust.

Cheers, Gisela

Too big to be seen

A few weeks ago, I came across this post at the nasaclimatechange Instagram account.

Illustration of the Pacific Garbage Patch
Illustration of the Pacific Garbage Patch. Credit: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The post talks about Pacific garbage patch which is an area in the central North Pacific Ocean with an exceptionally high concentration of human created waste, especially plastics and other chemicals.

Gathered by currents, the size of this area is hard to guess but estimates range from around the size of Texas to up to twice the size of the continental United States. (source Wikipedia) WOW! Continue reading “Too big to be seen”

Five insane (but true) things about gossip (and a guilty pleasure)

The other day I went to Starbucks. Alone. As I didn’t want it to seem that I cannot be comfortable by myself, instead of reaching for my cell phone and browsing the internet’s emptiness, I played my favourite pastime: Listen to other people’s conversations.
Yes, I admit it. I’m that kind of person.

I love to peek at their mannerisms, notice accents. I tell myself that it’s all part of a social experiment or, since I moved to Canada, to improve my English skills but the truth is… I am a snooper! Oops, I said it.

Don’t get me wrong… The habit started a few years ago, after reading an article that said that about two-thirds of our conversations are about social topics, more specifically gossip (Dunbar, 2004). To test this theory, since then, whenever I go to cafeterias, restaurants, waiting rooms, I listen to my neighbours’ conversations.
Most of the time, what I hear is informal, trivial chatter about peoples’ lives. The majority of this so called gossip is not negative at all.

Given the fact that conversation is a human trait and that we spend a lot of time and energy in these social exchanges, gossiping must have an important social function, says Evolutionary Biologist, Robin Dunbar. In his article, he hypothesised that Gossip is the glue for social group bonding and one of the motors for language development.
He demystifies the current negative definition of gossip. In fact, gossip may be a form of social grooming equivalent to the grooming behaviour we see in chimps and other social primates.

grooming in chimpanzees
Grooming in chimpanzees: The purpose of this behaviour is to remove old hair, soil parasites but also to relax and bond with the group. All primates (including humans) show this behaviour. Credits: WWF / Michel Gunther

Because of the hominids’ (that’s us) increasing social networks, grooming was too time consuming and gossip came to be the best substitute.
Gossip is an effective way of:
1. bringing people together
2. building networks and alliances
3. defining who is a friend and who is not
4. reinforcing social values
5. clarifying hierarchies

The idea that gossip and human language evolved together and that the primary function of gossip is to build and maintain social relationships is mind blowing and has stayed with me ever since. It changed my perspective on how humans interact and became my guilty pleasure.

Gossiping networking



How about you, dear readers, do you gossip?
My fellow snoopers, I want to hear from you!


Cheers, Gisela

Farming, the Last Frontier

Have you seen the movie “The Martian”?
If you are looking for a feel good, Cast-Away-meets-MacGyver-kind-of-movie for this rainy Saturday afternoon, this is your fix.

With the help of Science, no problem’s too big for botanist-astronaut Mark Watney!

And if you are a fan of potatoes, then you’ll have a full plate (pun intended).
Mark Watney goes back to basics, relying on food rationing and some farming, in order to survive a solitary and famished sojourn in Mars. His major challenge rising a spacestead was the lack of water, but NASA scientists list other limitations for space farming as microgravity, harmful radiation and reduced light and pressure.

NASA plans to grow food on future spacecraft and on other planets as a food supplement for astronauts (top right). Astronaut Kjell Lindgren corrals the supply of fresh fruit in the international Space Station - ISS (top, left). Astronauts on the ISS harvest and savour
NASA plans to grow food on future spacecraft and on other planets as a food supplement for astronauts (top left). Astronaut Kjell Lindgren corrals the supply of fresh fruit in the international Space Station – ISS (top, right). Astronauts on the ISS harvest and savour “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce from the Veggie plant growth system (bottom).

NASA has invested millions of dollars in space farming research and when you think it costs $10,000 to ship just 1 pound of food to the International Space Station you understand why.This August, six astronauts at the International Space Center became the first to eat lettuce grown more than 250 km above the earth’s surface!!! Other crops were cultivated before but sent back to Earth for research.

I would like to focus your attention on the challenges of farming in a place where gravity is greatly reduced or even inexistent.

If I remember correctly from my plant physiology classes*, plants have a refined sense of knowing what is up and what is down. But what happens up there in space?
Plants respond to gravity (gravitropism) by growing their roots down into the soil and their stems up to reach the sunlight. But what’s their stimulus? How is gravity perceived?

Scientists developed the Starch-Statolith hypothesis: at the tips of roots there are special organelles (statoliths) that bear tiny granules of starch, which, pulled by gravity, settle in the bottom of the cells triggering the release of the hormone auxin. Auxin promotes root epithelial cell elongation and consequent bending because of the weight.

Enlarged (Bar = 300 µm), longitudinal view of an Arabidopsis primary root. Gravity sensing in roots occurs in the cells of the root cap (inset), which contain dense, starch-filled amyloplasts (purple dots). Retrieved from Am. J. Bot. January 2013 vol. 100 no. 1 143-152
Enlarged (Bar = 300 µm), longitudinal view of an Arabidopsis primary root. Gravity sensing in roots occurs in the cells of the root cap (inset), which contain dense, starch-filled amyloplasts (purple dots). Retrieved from Am. J. Bot. January 2013 vol. 100 no. 1 143-152

Oddly, the area where gravity is sensed is often far away from the area where growth happens and the mechanism for the transmission of this message is still poorly understood.
Grasping the mysteries of plant growth will help select the crops which use resources more efficiently for long-term space missions and colonization.
Providing fresh and nutritious food for cosmonauts is the immediate benefit of space farming, but growing veggies in outer space may also provide oxygen for the crew, help recycle water and also provide a recreation activity.

For all of you, who are skeptic about space exploration and do not see the point for this research, I must add that understanding how plants anchor in the soil and acquire nutrients and water also benefit agricultural practices and bioenergy management here on Earth. This research will impact our understanding of how plants recover from landslides, survive severe droughts or subsist on depleted soils.
“The Martian” helped me abandon the idea that space exploration is essentially pointless and a luxury when we think of what is yet to explore here on Earth and the unsolved inequalities that still exist.

The Universe and Human ingenuity is too vast to be confined just to the (not so small) earthly quarters of our existence.

Further reading:
Nine real NASA technologies in The Martian 
An introduction to the Starch-Statolith hypothesis


*those that know me from that time, may recall the crush I had on my Plant Physiology teacher’s delicate, long hands so I may not remember a lot of what was taught. OOOOOOOOH… and did I mention his salt and pepper beard?

Cheers, Gisela