Interview With Camilla Saulsbury
Camilla V. Saulsbury is a writer, recipe developer, fitness trainer, endurance athlete, and creator of the healthy food blog, Power Hungry. She holds a PhD in sociology with specializations in food studies, health, and medicine as well as certifications in both personal training and fitness instruction, as well as being a certified pilates instructor. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, she currently lives in Texas with her husband and son. Lake Isle Press caught up with the very busy Saulsbury to discuss her newest book, Power Hungry.
The cookbook came about in large part due to the success of power bar recipes you published on your blog. What pushed you to put this idea in print?
I wanted to provide more than recipes—I wanted to give readers a real handbook for how to make a wide variety of bars, and vary them almost endlessly. I get a lot of questions from my blog readers asking about ingredients, substitutions, variations and more—Power Hungry is now their go-to guide!
What are the benefits of making bars from scratch instead of buying them?
Cost is a major factor. Power bars are affordable if you are only buying one or two on occasion. But if you have a multi-person household, and or you use bars often as part of a fitness regimen, the prices can quickly become exorbitant.
Ingredient control is the second factor. Ironically, a large percentage of power bars on the market are loaded with junk ingredients such as synthetic flavorings, artificial sweeteners, soy protein isolate, sugar alcohols, hydrogenated oils, chemical colorants, and high- fructose corn syrup. It’s a recipe for bad-tasting bars, too.
I can’t get over how simple these recipes are. If it’s so easy, why don’t big energy bar companies cut out the junk and make your bars instead? What are the incentives for energy bar companies to make unhealthy or pseudo-healthy bars?
The answer is likely as simple as maximizing profits: companies are ultimately in the business of making money and junk ingredients cost less than high-quality ingredients. Moreover, regulations of the terms “all-natural” and “healthy” are not regulated by the federal government (unlike “organic” or “non-GMO”)—so companies have tremendous leeway to use the ingredients of their choosing without consequence.
One of your recent blog post addresses reader questions about your diet restrictions. Though lots of your recipes are gluten free, vegan, and/or Paleo, you don’t personally follow any of these diets. You seem to dabble, both in culinary and exercise modes. How do you maintain this balance and make it work for you?
At the root of it I’m curious and I love to experiment with new approaches—it means my job is always exciting and new. It’s incredibly satisfying to figure out new methods and techniques for making a traditional recipe (e.g., pancakes that are grain-free (Paleo), egg and dairy-free (vegan) or gluten-free, but all three delicious)—it makes me a better recipe developer, writer and cook, and it allows me to reach a wide audience, too. So instead of “dabbling”, I prefer to think of myself as adventurous and inclusive in my approach to eating and developing recipes.
Related to balance, it sometimes feels like a big part of eating healthy is labeling foods “good” or “bad” and maximizing “good” foods while cutting out “bad” ones. Your book is refreshingly positive however, making me think about what I want to eat instead of what I should or shouldn’t be eating and focusing on the function of ingredients over a moral judgment. How did you reach this practical outlook?
That is music to my ears, because that is precisely my position! It relates to my previous response, too, and why I like to experiment with multiple approaches to cooking, developing recipes, as well as embracing a wide variety of ingredients. I wish I could give you a great “a-ha!” story regarding how I landed on my approach, but I think much of the credit lies with my parents. I grew up in the San Francisco bay area and my parents were devoted gardeners, Co-op shoppers, and great cooks. We ate lots of typical “Berkeley” fare (whole grains will always be my comfort foods), but there was a strong representation of traditional fare, too, including desserts. But the approach was always balance—no extremism, no foods off limits, lots of variety, plenty of fruits and vegetable, and occasional indulgences. Add to that lots of running around, as a family, and also in individual sports. It’s stuck with me!
It seems like you approach exercise with the same adventurous approach as your cooking (running, triathlons, spinning, kickboxing, Pilates, etc.). How do you train for specific events (such as a marathon or triathlon) when you’re doing so many different types of exercise?
I have been teaching group fitness class for (gulp) more than 20 years now. It’s my baseline for staying fit and cross training (I currently teach spinning, pilates/abs and a high intensity interval class using the step). I didn’t start running until I was 30 (I decided to train for a marathon) but I fell in love with it. I always follow a specific training plan when I am training for a particular event (almost everything I’ve learned I’ve learned from books J), but then I take a break from training for a few weeks or months (and just teach my classes and do lighter runs/rides/swimming). Rest in between is the key for me, as well as following expert advice.
I’m a fan of healthy eating, but I’m sometimes skeptical of unfamiliar ingredients or anything with kale. In the spirit of balance, you provide plenty of alternatives for more obscure ingredients, but I’m sure there are pros and cons to each option. Can you tell me a little bit about some of the ingredients in your bars and why you chose to include them?
Kale – I’m not sure why I have such negative associations with this particular dark leafy green and yet will happily devour spinach in any form. Help me be less afraid. What are the benefits of eating kale? (disclaimer for readers with kale phobias: it’s only in one bar)
Ok, I am here to convince you! Kale is not just good for you, it is AMAZING for your health. It belongs to same family of vegetables as cabbage, collards, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts (the Brassica family), but what makes kale extra-special is the nutrition it has to offer: One cup of chopped kale contains 33 calories and 9% of the daily value of calcium, 206% of vitamin A, 134% of vitamin C, and a whopping 684% of vitamin K. It is also a good source of minerals copper, potassium, iron, manganese, and phosphorus.
One of the easiest ways to add some kale to you diet with ease is to add some chopped leaves to your favorite soup (homemade or from a can J). Just a few minutes in the hot liquid will soften it. You can also add a handful of leaves to your favorite smoothie (not too much, especially when you are starting out!). I also like to chop it fine and cook it in a bit of olive oil before scrambling it with eggs. Try it!
Agave nectar – you offer lots of alternatives to this ingredient, such as glucose syrup, light corn syrup, maple syrup or honey. What is agave and why would someone want to use it instead of more readily available alternatives?
Agave nectar is made from the sap of the flowers of agave plants. It can be used interchangeably with honey and maple syrup. I prefer it to regular sugar because it has a low-glycemic index compared to processed sugar. This means that when consumed, it won't cause a sharp rise or fall in blood sugar.
Stevia is in this category for me too.
Stevia is an all-natural, zero calorie sweetener that is derived from the leaves of a plant called Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni). It’s been used to sweeten foods in Paraguay and Brazil for centuries. I like to use it in combination with other sweeteners (e.g., if a recipe is not quite sweet enough with the natural sugars already in it, I’ll add a touch of stevia to make it sweeter).
Goji berries – these look delicious but I’ve never tried them. You suggest them as an alternative to dried fruits like cranberries or blueberries. What are some of the particular benefits of gojis?
Goji berries, also known as wolfberries, are a reddish-orange berry from China with a slightly sweet and usually sour flavor. They are far less sweet (much lower glycemic index) than most dried fruit, which is why I think they are a great option for incorporating into bars. They are also extremely high in antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory benefits, too. I think their taste and texture are really interesting, too. They have a sort of earthy quality in combination with a berry flavor, and the texture is both crunch and chewy. Worth trying!
One of your major issues with many commercial protein bars is that the “protein” in them is of such low quality that it isn’t giving you the benefits you expect. What should people look for when picking out their own protein powders for your recipes?
To be honest, I was extremely leery of protein powders until about 5 years ago. We always had whey protein powder in the house (my husband does more serious strength training and has used protein powders for shakes since his teens), but I had no interest in trying it. Also, up until a few years ago, it was difficult to find all-natural protein powders—most had artificial flavors and were sweetened with aspartame.
What changed things for me was a health food expo where I got to try a variety of all-natural protein powders, both whey protein and plant-based (vegan) protein. I was surprised at how good they tasted, and the convenience aspect to getting more protein into my diet suddenly clicked for me.
Whether you are new or familiar with protein powders, there are a few things to look for in order to reap the best benefits:
Whey protein powders: Opt for whey protein powders that are all-natural, free of sugar, gluten, artificial flavors, and artificial colors, and sweetened using all-natural stevia or another natural sweetener. In addition, look for a brand that uses whey that is derived from farm-raised, pasture-grazed, grass-fed cows that are not treated with the synthetic bovine growth hormone rBGH
Plant-based protein powders: Vegan raw protein powders are made from a proprietary blend of plant proteins, which often includes pea protein, hemp protein, and rice protein. Look for blends that are allergen-free, soy- free, non-GMO, naturally- flavored, and naturally sweetened with stevia or another natural sweetener.
This might be a just for me question, but a lot of your recipes call for a food processor – for a poor college student, are there any alternatives for this?
I completely understand! I do indeed have some advice:
(1) I started making bars in grad school when all that I had was a small food processor, like this one (only $9!!!).
It will more than pay for itself since I used it a LOT. For the bars, just make a half batch at a time (so you do not blow out the motor!)
(2) I found a larger food processor later in grad school at a garage sale for about $15. It was a 70s clunker, but it had a great motor! You can find some great older food processors on ebay.
Can you talk about the testing process for these recipes? How long did it take and what did you do with so many bars? What did you look for to know you had a winner?
Testing is a long process that does not (for me) follow a linear path.
About half a dozen of the bars in the book were already developed in one way or another (from my blog—for example my versions of Clif bars and Larabars). I retested and refined these and then tried to add different flavor combinations.
I flesh out most of my ideas on paper/computer before heading to the kitchen and typically test a bar at least 3 or 4 times before deciding it’s a winner. A final round of testing occurs once I’ve written the recipe in its entirety with all of the fine-tuning adjustments.
Our freezer was stocked with bars for almost a year, even though I gave many, many bars away. One of the benefits of being married to a college professor is that there are always hungry students who are willing to eat just about anything I prepare. I also shared many bars with my fitness participants and friends in my endurance training group (great feedback from all!) as well as with my neighbor’s three teenage sons J.
You’ve written a lot of cook books in the past. What makes this one special? Were there any joys or challenges in the writing process that were unique to Power Hungry?
This book is, without question my baby because making power bars has been such a major part of my life and diet for so long! I make power bars all the time, eat them daily, pack them in my son’s lunches (my husband packs them, too), and use them to fuel my workouts and life! When Lake Isle Press accepted the book proposal I was over the moon, but I was more nervous about this book than any other I’ve written—for the reasons above. This book is extra-special because it merges my two passions—fitness and food writing—in a way that I have never been able to do before now. The concept of the book also helped me sharpen the focus of my blog (I renamed my blog “Power Hungry”). I also registered Power Hungry as a trademark—so I am excited about what lies ahead!
Many thanks to Camilla for taking the time to talk with us. We've been enjoying your book and can't wait to see what you'll whip up next!
Brianne Mirecki is a student and runner who attempts to bake gourmet treats in less-than-gourmet college dorm kitchens.