After my fibromyalgia diagnosis five years ago, I began to make significant changes to my lifestyle.
I stopped drinking alcohol and started to remove as many chemicals as possible from my everyday use. I began making my own skin products from raw ingredients and changed my hair dye to a completely natural option. But the most drastic change was to my diet, not least because I felt sure any extra pressure on my system was bound to make me worse.
Years ago a nurse told me that she had noticed the bodies of deceased patients were not decomposing normally. She was convinced this was due to the amount of chemicals and preservatives in our food. At the time the thought of this was repugnant but the idea has always stayed with me. For the first time in my life I considered what I was eating, what it might contain and what the long term effects could be.
Once diagnosed, I remembered this conversation and started to take a serious look at my choices. I quickly realised that in its already fragile state my body didn’t need any further strain from digesting heavily processed foods. For once, contemplating my diet had nothing to do with calories and everything to do with goodness.
I was used to looking at ingredients in the supermarket for gluten content but now I started to scrutinise them further. One of the first things I noticed was how much sugar there was in pasta sauces and ketchups. These were just basic everyday items but they were also brimming with ‘concentrates’ which usually contain lots of salt and even more sugar. The processed nature of concentrates means the nutritional value of the product is heavily compromised.
It was pretty easy to make my own pasta sauce from scratch but the ketchup proved more difficult. I had to run a few experiments before I perfected the flavour. It is quite easy to make and I think it’s better than shop-bought ketchup. Here’s the finished recipe.
Real Tomato Ketchup
1 red onion roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves roughly chopped
2 kg of fresh tomatoes (80 per cent ripe – 20 per cent green) chopped
2-4 tablespoons of tomato puree
¼ cup of water
1 teaspoon of olive oil
2 tablespoons of celery salt
1 heaped teaspoon of allspice
10 fresh basil leaves chopped
½ tsp black pepper
300 ml good cider vinegar
80–100g brown sugar (depending on personal preference)
2 x 500ml sterilised bottles with screw lids
On a medium heat, add olive oil and sweat the garlic and onions in the pan. As they begin to brown, pour in the ½ cup of water. Then add one tablespoon of celery salt and one teaspoon of allspice, half teaspoon of black pepper, and all of the tomatoes. Boil for 20 minutes. If there is any sticking add a little more water, add the tomato puree, another tablespoon of celery salt and the basil, boil for a further 10 minutes. Leave the liquid to cool for 30 minutes then blend thoroughly with a hand blender or food mixer. Sieve twice to remove seeds and any other bits and to improve the consistency of the mixture. Then return to the pan adding the vinegar and sugar. Heat the mixture again and if it is too thin and watery allow it to boil down and reduce. Once the ketchup has reached a good thickness, remove from the heat and allow it to cool for 10-15 minutes. Then pour into the sterilised bottles and screw on the lids. Once the ketchup has cooled store in the fridge. It should keep for six months.
This is the ideal time of year to make ketchup as it is peak tomato season; they are cheap and at their tastiest. My recipe works out at roughly a kilo of tomatoes per bottle so nutritiously it’s extremely good for you – and it tastes amazing. I don’t think I could go back to ordinary ‘concentrate’ ketchup now.
During my research into other common ingredients I frequently came across various forms of artificial sweetener. I used to be a huge fan of sugar-free products but, as my illness progressed, I noticed that certain sugar-free drinks and foods made me feel worse. At first I put this down to coincidence but then I began to read American research papers, specifically those focusing on aspartame which some scientists link to a whole host of illnesses including fibromyalgia. Of course, there is also a lot of data that contradicts these findings, but I know I feel a marked increase in my pain levels if I ingest aspartame. Consequently I avoid it like the plague which has meant eliminating various products including sugar-free gum and most sweet drinks.
I can do without most things but one product I really missed was cordial. Like most people I’m on a tight grocery budget and the only squashes in my price range contained aspartame. Most of the year I make do with good old ‘corporation pop’ (tap water) but as summer fruits ripen I take the opportunity to produce my own cordial. It’s an inexpensive option if you make it with free fruit. I’m lucky enough to have wild raspberries, tayberries and wimberries on my doorstep but even the city forager can source brambles and, later, elderberries to make their own squash. The only cost is the sugar, and the beauty of making your own is you can choose to reduce the sugar. This will shorten its shelf life but, let’s face it, homemade cordials don’t last that long anyway.
Summer Fruit Cordial
2–2.5 kilos of freshly picked and washed summer fruits – raspberries, strawberries, and wimberries are all good options
1.5 litres of water
1 kg white sugar
Fill the pan with 1.5 litres of water and add all the rinsed fruit. Begin to heat the contents and allow to simmer for at least 30 minutes. Use a potato masher to mush up the berries releasing their juice. Once you can see the berries have broken down, remove from the heat and strain through a sieve with a piece of muslin in it. Leave the contents of the sieve to drip through for a few hours. If you’re not too fussy about having a perfectly clear juice you can even squeeze the muslin to release the very last drops of the liquid. Pour the strained liquid into a clean pan and add the sugar. Begin to boil. Once the sugar has dissolved and the liquid has thickened very slightly, remove from heat and decant into sterilised bottles. Once cooled, label and store in the fridge.
The sugar content in this recipe is only a guide. I often use far less although it is a case of personal preference. It’s also worth noting that some of the naturally sweeter fruits (like strawberries) don’t require as much sugar. This cordial also makes delicious syrup and we often pour it over desserts, ice-cream or pancakes, something we could never do with a bottle of supermarket squash.
Although I have a reason to analyse my diet, I think everyone should consider what they are putting into their bodies. We weren’t designed to absorb so many chemical sweeteners and preservatives and you will feel better living without them. Yes, it takes a bit of work, but I prefer to know exactly what I’m consuming, and where it comes from.
DISCLAIMER: These are some of my personal experiences of using the above herbs combined with information I have researched over a number of years. I am not encouraging people to self-medicate; in the treatment of specific conditions it is best to consult a herbalist or your GP. Always check if any pharmaceutical medication you are taking is compatible before trying herbs. If you should develop an adverse reaction to any of the herbs mentioned above please stop using them immediately. Always take care when identifying plants.