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Monday, April 15, 2013

What is Food?

In his book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan gives some tips about what he thingks we should eat to avoid the pitfalls of the Western diet.  Many of them make a lot of sense.  Admittedly, though, some just don't seem feasible to do all the time.  I mean, who doesn't want a Tastykake or a White Castle cheeseburger once in a while?

So I think that using his tips is a great guideline for eating healthy, tasty foods.  Try to do it as much as you can and you're in much better shape than most of the folks in this country.

Here are some of Pollan's suggestions:
  • Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.  This will help you distinguish between food and food products.  He also suggests a related thought: Don't eat anything incapable of rotting.  (Except honey, I assume.)
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) unfamiliar, B) unpronounceable, C) more than five in number, or that include D) high-fructose corn syrup.  Pollan says that each of these in themselves aren't that harmful, but they're all a mark of highly processed foods.  There are exceptions to some of the rules, I think.  I make trail mix that has way more than 5 ingredients, but you get the idea.
  • Avoid food products that make health claims.  Pollan writes: "For a food product to make healthy claims on its package it must first have a package, so right off the bat it's more likely to be a processed than a whole food."  This is a really big problem for people looking to eat more healthy foods, but aren't informed.  The FDA's rules allow food companies to make these claims in any way they want (like big print with disclaimers in microscopic print).
The American Heart Association currently bestows (for a fee) its heart-healthy seal of approval on Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs, and Trix cereals, Yoo-hoo lite chocolate drink, and Healthy Choice's Premium Caramel Swirl Ice Cream Sandwich--this at a time when scientists are coming to recognize that dietary sugar probably plays a more important role in heart disease than dietary fat.
  • Shop at the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.   I've always given this suggestion to people looking to find more healthy food when shopping.  Of course, it's not fool-proof.  Just check out the neon-colored kid's yogurt in the dairy case or that fake caramel dip in the fruit section. 
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible.  Shop at farmers' markets or a local butcher shop.  Better yet, join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm and get fresh produce all season long.  Produce--conventional or organic--in a supermarket travels an average of 1600 miles from field to your plate.  From the moment it's picked most produce starts to lose taste and nutrition.  So the stuff at your local farmers' market is better tasting and better for you (and it helps our local economy).  And having that fresh stuff should make you want to cook it.
Cooking is one of the most important health consequences of buying food from local farmers; for one thing, when you cook at home you seldom find yourself reaching for the ethoxylated diglycerides or high-fructose corn syrup.
Pollan writes about how the shorter the food chain, the better:
Only when we participate in a short food chain are we reminded every week that we are indeed part of a food chain and dependent for our health on its peoples and soils and integrity--on its health....Depending on how we spend them, our food dollars can either go to support a food industry devoted to quantity and convenience and "value" or they can nourish a food chain organized around values--values like quality and health.  Yes, shopping this way takes more money and effort, but as soon as you begin to treat that expenditure not just as shopping but also as a kind of vote--a vote for health in the largest sense--food no longer seems like the smartest place to economize.

Not much more I can say in addition to that.  Mr. Pollan seems to have hit it right on the head.

More tips next time.

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