Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Still More Thoughts on Food

I've still been thinking about food, particularly about the idea, taken as gospel in some corners of the internet, that processed food is a bad thing.

Two questions are floating around in my head:

1. Do you suppose that when humans first learned how to turn wheat into flour and then into bread, a group of traditionalists went around grousing about this new, unnatural processed food?

2. Why is it that when Native Americans or a tribe in some remote corner of the world use all parts of an animal it is considered noble, but when a food company does something similar and fashions chicken nuggets out of less-favored bits of chicken meat it is considered bad, even evil?

I suspect the answer to the first question is a resounding "no", because that technological innovation increased the food calories that could be extracted from a plot of land, and enabled those calories to be stored for delayed use. These were good things. But who knows, maybe some people at the time were suspicious of the new-fangled bread.

The answer to the second question is harder to fathom. I suspect it has something to do with our deep-seated ideas about how homes should be run and what women should do with their lives, mixed with a healthy dose of knee-jerk "if a big corporation does it, it must be evil".

Personally, I think we should evaluate our food based on whether its production is sustainable and whether it is good for us, not on what technology was used to produce it or who produced it. I think we should be rational about this, instead of dogmatic. I don't think high-fructose corn syrup is a problem- I think the problem is our overuse of refined sugar. So I don't search for juices cookies made with "real sugar". I limit our use of juices cookies*. Similarly, I don't think the problem is that we are using foods that are made by a company and not baked from scratch at home. I think the problem is that some of those foods use too much fat, sugar, and salt as a shortcut to good taste. So I try to chose these foods carefully and use them in moderation.

It is not that I am a huge fan of "processed" food. We don't eat fast food very often at all. We cook most of our meals in our house, and I try to find recipes that I think are healthy. The vast majority of the recipes in heavy rotation come from Cooking Light, actually. However, I do make use of "convenience" foods, such as pre-shredded cheese, store bought tortellini, and frozen sweet potato fries (which I bake, not fry). And once every week or so, we eat a frozen pizza. I read the ingredients, and I decide if I think the product is a good mix of nutrition and convenience. I balance those things against the limited time I have in the evenings, and my desire to spend some of that time with my children, not in the kitchen.

I suspect that as my children get older, dinner time will move a little later and I will get them to help me make dinner- or at least hang out at the dining table while I make dinner. Hubby will make dinner more often, too, once we don't have to try to eat between 6 and 6:30. When these things happen, we will use fewer convenience foods, because we will have more time to cook and the work will be shared among all the family members.

In the meantime, I will continue on as I am going now- evaluating recipes and ingredients one at a time, with an eye to both nutrition and easing my hectic after work routine. And I will continue to refuse to feel guilty about it.

*Thanks to Petunia's decision to let me get some uninterrupted sleep last night, I'm thinking a little more clearly, and I realize that juice is a bad example. What I actually do with juice is look for products with NO added sugars and less added "sweetener juice" (e.g., grape juice). And then I still limit its consumption- Pumpkin gets juice at home only rarely.

Also, more on HFCS, food safety, and additives in the comments!


  1. Hi Cloud,
    I too have been a HFCS skeptic, so I was interested to read this research highlight in Nature the other week.

    Metabolism: Fat from fructose

    Pharmacol. Biochem. Behav. doi:10.1016/j.pbb.2010.02.012 (2010)

    A widely used sweetener could be one culprit behind Americans' rapidly expanding waistlines.

    High-fructose corn syrup has been proposed to account for as much as 7% of the daily caloric intake in the United States — a conservative estimate, say Bartley Hoebel and his team at Princeton University in New Jersey. They report that rats fed high-fructose corn syrup along with their regular chow for eight weeks gained more weight than those that munched on sucrose-supplemented chow, even when they consumed the same total number of calories.

    The same was true when the rats were given high-fructose corn syrup over longer periods — up to seven months. This extended diet was also associated with signs of obesity, including increases in fat deposits, particularly around the abdomen, and higher levels of fats called triglycerides in the blood.

  2. @zed- I saw that study, too. Here was my reaction:

    Marion Nestle is certainly no shill for the food industry, and she wasn't impressed by that study.

    But, it was the first study I have seen that found any difference whatsoever between eating HFCS and eating sucrose.

  3. It bothers me that there are like twenty ingredients listed on the loaf of bread I buy to make Tate's peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I don't have time to make bread but does everything commercial have to be so full of unpronounceable "stuff"?

    I don't think the Native Americans herded and slaughtered hundreds of deer at a time. The more removed we are from the actual killing of the animal(s) we are eating, the less noble of an endeavor it seems.

    Also - I read the NY Times article about e. coli and hamburger processing and haven't eaten it since.

  4. While I pretty much agree with what you wrote (except you know how I feel about HFCS, even if it is just a gut feeling and not support by firm research... yet...), I have to ditto what mom2boy said.

    I am really concerned with all the "stuff" that's in every "processed" product. All the preservatives and dyes and flavoring, in addition to the sugars and salts. When I bake bread myself, I use flour, water and yeast. That's it. I know that won't last long on the shelves, but wouldn't it be better to produce smaller quatities more often in order to reduce the preservatives (for example) than to mass produce and simply fill it up with stuff which may have long-term affects that haven't been figured out?

    Of course, I rarely have time to bake bread these days and don't have the money to continuously buy fresh-baked bread, so we do buy mass-produced bread. But I also read the labels and try to find the one with the least "stuff" in it.

    In addition, we cannot account for how clean and careful these big food companies are, but I can tell you how clean (not very) and careful (very) my own kitchen is. e. coli is just one of the problems that usually get swept under the rug by big food manufacturers.

    But, as with everything, we all have to weigh our priorities, our time, our money, our political standings and our opinions carefully and figure out what works for us. For example, I'm hoping to start shopping more at the local farmers market this summer, but will I have the time or money? Or will I just pick bags of frozen veggies up at the grocery store? It could go either way...

  5. Good comments, everyone.

    It occurs to me that maybe I should be a little more clear about what I think about HFCS:

    I don't think we need it. I would not shed a tear if it disappeared from our food supply. But no one has shown me good data that convinces me that it behaves differently from sucrose when we eat it, and it kills me to see people ditching products made with HFCS in favor of equally sweet products made with "cane sugar", and thinking that this will make them healthier. I doubt it will. I haven't even seen anyone propose a mechanism for how HFCS would act differently. I've thought about it, and the most plausible mechanism I can think of is that there might be a taste receptor that sucrose binds to and HFCS doesn't, and that binding to that taste receptor activates some sort of satiety cue. But that is 100% guess.

    I do think HFCS has contributed to our increase in obesity, but I think that its done that by making calories cheap, and that the blame for that isn't on the molecule, but on our policies that skew its cost to food producers.

    I should probably write another post on HFCS someday.

    On additives- preservatives don't bother me anywhere near as much as dyes do, because the preservatives are actually doing something useful, and the dyes are just there because we want our food to be brightly colored (probably because back in the old days, that was a clue that the food had lots of vitamins and other "good" chemicals in it).

    We make bread in a bread maker for Pumpkin, because her level of bread consumption would bankrupt us if we bought it at the store. There are no preservatives in our homemade bread, and it has a shelf life of literally one day unless we freeze it. So I can see why store bought bread needs some preservatives, and for the most part, they are chemicals that I don't think are likely to cause me (or my kids) any harm.

    But we don't need red dye or what not. I'm starting to see a lot more foods use paprika and other brightly colored "natural ingredients" as colorants, which may be better- but maybe not. The natural colorants have some sort of chemical in them making them colorful, too. If a company adds the same chemical, but synthesizes it instead of purifies it, I don't see why that should matter.

    On food safety- oh, this one gets me mad. It definitely deserves its own post. @mom2boy- do you know how easy it would be to greatly reduce the risk of E. coli contamination in our hamburger? If you don't, you may want to click away now, because it will make you even madder to find out. We just need to feed our cows grass, not corn. The corn changes the acidity of their stomachs (can't remember which way right now- more acid or less) and makes it possible for the pathogenic E. coli strain to grow in their stomachs. That strain doesn't really grow in the stomachs of cows fed grass. If it isn't in their stomachs, it won't be in their poop, and it won't contaminate our food.

    But changing how cows are fed would really require changes in how our meat is produced- our entire system sort of depends on feeding them corn in finishing feed lots right before they are slaughtered, and would probably make meat a little more expensive.

    My top two wishes for our food industry are: 1. stop feeding antibiotics to healthy animals just to make them grow a bit bigger. 2. feed animals what they are actually meant to eat, not what is cheapest to get. So, cows eat grass. Herbivores don't get bone meal. Etc.

    I could go on and on. But maybe I should just recommend that anyone interested in this read some of Marion Nestle's books.

  6. paola9:21 AM

    There is processed and processed. I wouldn't have a bar of bread that has colours and flavours added or trans-fats, for example. But I have a freezer full of frozen vegetables.

    Frozen vegetables are probably fresher and therefore better for you than the so called 'fresh' vegetables you get at the grocery or local market, becasue they are snap frozen almost immediately after picking and cleaning, so their nutrients aren't lost like fresh vegetbles that are left in the fridge too long. I have absolutely no qualms about buying frozen vegies mainly becasue I don't have to clean them. Fresh beans for example take time to clean and prepare, whereas their frozen equivalent don't.

    Then again, there are certain processed foods, you can not do without. Our breakfast cereals for example are procesed, but we get the ones that are more 'genuine', with as little salt, sugar as possible.

  7. Am I the only mother in the world that really doesn't give a rat's ass about the supposed virtues of being a sustainable, organic, locavore? I know it is really trendy right now, but I don't believe knowing the source of something automatically renders it any better for you.

  8. Anonymous3:00 PM

    Hurray for some common sense regarding the diet fad du jour—as you call it “the gospel in some corners of the internet.” No one is helped by being made to feel guilty or by pointing the finger at processed foods or high fructose corn syrup or even refined sugar. Affordability and convenience guide a lot of our food choices. We don’t all have time to eat fresh from the farm, raw food—but by making good choices, we can lead healthy lives.

  9. Food is not inherently bad; what is done to the food what's important. Your comment – ”to be rational rather than dogmatic” – is solid logic and good advice. We lead complicated lives, and often what is practical for one may be impossible for another. Everyone makes their own food choices; no one can inspire guilt without our permission. Balance and moderation are helpful practices; guilt is pretty useless.

    The problem with the industrial agricultural complex (Big Food) is production practices. They alter whole food to make processed food products with unfortunate outcomes:

    o They refine food to excess, removing what is essentially good in whole food. They then add back small amounts of artificial nutrients which are not as good as those inherent in the whole foods in the first place. Michael Pollan discusses this at length in his book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.

    o They use unnecessarily large amounts of sugar and salt (and, in the case of fast food, fat) in order to get consumers addicted to the food products they make, insuring an ever-increasing dependence upon salt, sugar and fat. In addition to endangering our health, it eventually cripples the ability to taste real food without all the sugar, salt and fat.

    Many feel that these two factors alone make Big Food’s products (as a dominant food source) unsustainable. A diet of nutrient-deficient calories (relative to whole foods) allows people to be malnourished while inching towards obesity.

    Tobacco companies began buying up stock in the food sector as a way of diversifying their reach in the marketplace. Addicting consumers to refined food products as a way to get them to buy and consume ever-increasing amounts are well-documented operating procedures, as Marion Nestle has substantiated in her books.

    The result is increased profits for Big Food (which keeps them happy) and decreased nutrition for the consumer (about which Big Food has, for decades, been unconcerned). Their health claims on boxes of sugar-laden breakfast cereal is proof of that.

  10. Thanks Cloud, I missed your comments on that paper. This is not at all my field of science, and I haven't read the original paper, but the MN blog, and in particular the response from one of the authors of the paper on her blog, makes me lean towards thinking there is something to the results- in RATS at least.

    We tend to eat a lot of local stuff and cook from scratch. But it's mostly because that's what we're used to, and because we enjoy eating this way- the aesthetics of shopping at the market, the smells, feels, of cooking, and so on. That is, I don't think there's a huge health benefit. On the other hand, I DO think there are benefits to the planet in eating this way (carbon footprint stuff).

  11. @zed- it isn't really my area of science, either, which is why I really wish someone would look for a mechanism. THOSE studies I could really understand. I wasn't aware that one of the authors had commented on Marion Nestle's blog. I'll have to go check that out.

    I am not terribly fussed about the whole HFCS thing mainly because I try to limit our consumption of refined sugar of any sort, so it isn't my biggest food issue. Still, I think it is an interesting area, so I keep tabs.

    @Joy- no one can make me feel guilty without my permission, but they can sure as hell try. And that is what I think is happening right now. Huge guilt trips are being laid on people about what they eat, and I don't think that is helpful at all. Let's talk about what we know in terms of health, and what we think about how best to be healthy without the moral judgment on food. Let's recognize our strong biochemical drive to consume more calories and stop implying that eating more calories than you need is a moral failing. In most cases, the biology is stacked against you, and the degree to which it is stacked against you differs from person to person.

    I have to confess I have a bit of a knee-jerk reaction myself to the use of "Big X", where X is some
    industry, as a pejorative in a discussion about issues. I want to see the arguments stand on their own, without demonizing an industry.

    I like Michael Pollan's books. I think he is a great writer, and I always come away from reading one of his books having learned something and having things to think about. But that doesn't mean that I agree with him 100% on food issues.

  12. Anonymous1:40 PM

    I'm not going to weigh in on the HFCS or processing issue, just on the mom trying to feed good food to her kid issue. I'd be lost without my slow cooker. There are some great cookbooks out there, many available at our local library. With it's help I can do dinner prep after the bedtime routine and come home the next day to dinner, all made and ready to go. Add a quick veg and dinner is on the table. I know your little one is pickier, but if you haven't tried it, do! Someone even had a blog (A Year of Crockpotting?) and she posted her kid's responses to the recipes too. Just a thought, I'd love to help another working mom make it easier on herself!

  13. I'm commenting late on this, but I love what you wrote, Cloud. Nothing irks me more than hearing fad science groupthink like "it's healthier if it's organic," or "HFCS is evil" or "all processed food is garbage." Or the constant refrain here in Europe: "Genetically modified organisms are poison."

    Sheesh. Reality is nuanced. It is harder to see that, of course, and much easier to just repeat some headline you've read. But when it comes to dishing out guilt to other people (to which us moms are super-receptive), it's just irresponsible.

    Now, I feel pretty lucky, because here in France some of the problems I see with the US food supply are lessened. First, there's little corn grown here, and as a result, there's little HFCS (I don't think I've ever seen it on an ingredient list here) and cattle aren't generally corn-fed, at least to my knowledge (and beef is more expensive, perhaps as a result).

    Second, there seem to be fewer additives in processed foods. I don't know why this is: European regulation? Or just shorter supply chains because food doesn't have to be shipped so far, so preservatives are less important? Or maybe my observation is wrong?

    One thing is certain: the bread is good, and fresh, and required by law (seriously!) to only contain (for a baguette) flour, water, salt and yeast. Of course, this constraint works because there's a bakery on every street and everyone picks up a new loaf once a day. A baguette left on the kitchen counter for two days becomes a deadly weapon.

    Not that everything is rosy perfect in Europe; remember mad cow. I've also heard less than flattering things about large-scale pork production in Brittany. And I'm not sure how I feel about those hundreds of square kilometers of plastic greenhouses that produce the Spanish tomatoes that I eat in February. (Yes! I buy them! Not local, and not even in season!)

    My son eats frozen peas, gazpacho from a cardboard carton, mass-produced crumpets shipped in from England, supermarket ham (the top quality brand, but still from Breton pigs, I'm sure) and plenty of industrial tortellini. When you have a toddler who still isn't reliably eating the same thing as the rest of the family, I believe the path of least resistance is to use some high-quality convenience foods. But my husband and I make most of the "adult" food from scratch (simple stuff -- lots of soups and salads -- and often with pre-made components, like canned or frozen veggies) and my son is growing into it, slowly.

    As an aside, the knee-jerk anti-GMO thing here drives me NUTS, and not because I'm wildly pro-GMO. I just see it as a technology, like any other, which undoubtedly has safe uses and unsafe uses. If we declare it All Bad, then who is doing the science to actually determine what is useful and what is dangerous? Grrrr....


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