Last week I read Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food, An Eater’s Manifesto. It’s quite well written and thoroughly sourced. He’s a journalist, not a scientist, but he is an academic as well and certainly able to document and defend his ideas. I plan to devote a post reviewing each of the three sections of his book. Pollan’s basic premise is actually simple and he unveils it immediately in the introduction.
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done in the United States today. The first two sections explore why it has become so difficult and the last section explores ways to overcome those difficulties. If more of us begin to “vote” with our wallets, we may begin to have a real impact.
For the past year, since I was diagnosed with celiac disease, I’ve had to actually read and analyze the full ingredient list on absolutely everything (other than fresh produce) before I eat it. I already knew that some common things were actually imitations, of course. For example, I’ve loved buttermilk my whole life. And it’s next to impossible to actually buy real buttermilk anywhere. Read the label on the “buttermilk” in the store next time you go shopping. Odds are it’s not actually buttermilk at all, but rather a chemical concoction designed to emulate the taste and texture of buttermilk. However, I didn’t realize until I began reading all labels just how little of our food is actually the food itself and how much is a processed imitation. That heavy whipping cream? Probably not real cream or at least not just cream. Those potato chips? You won’t find more than a few that are really just sliced, fried, and salted potatoes. Check that butter to see if it’s really just butter. Most of what is sold as “yogurt” is a lot more than milk with bacterial cultures. I even have to watch out for supposedly “raw” meat. It sometimes comes with a list of ingredients as well.
I’m not the sort of person who was blithely unaware of the health implications of processed foods. I grew up in a family that frequented health food stores and subscribed to Mother Earth News back in the 70s. My parents gardened so much that I was sick of it by the time I became an adult. We had a yogurt maker to make our own yogurt from scratch. My father co-authored an Indian cookbook and began teaching me how to cook (and letting me experiment) by the time I was in 5th grade. I’ve been somewhat aware of food and environmental concerns my whole life and have been partially engaged. I have friends with various sorts of food allergies and sensitivities and know their struggles. Even given all that background, I’ve been surprised this past year by just how difficult it is today to find real food.
Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), the Internet allows me to research each individual chemical ingredient and additive so I haven’t had to completely eliminate such things from my diet simply because I had no idea what it was. But I feel like cheering anytime I find a short ingredient list with normal things in it that I recognize without online research. I find that I buy more from non-US companies.
Tasty Bites is a good example of one such company. In order to illustrate my point, let’s take a simple product like unflavored rice. Here is Tasty Bites microwaveable basmati rice. Look at the ingredients. There are three of them: water, basmati rice, and sunflower oil. That’s it. Short, simple, and easy to decipher. Compare that to the ingredients in Uncle Ben’s Basmati Ready Rice product (one of the shortest ingredient lists of all the Ready Rice products): WATER; BASMATI RICE; CANOLA OIL AND/OR SUNFLOWER OIL; SOY LECHITHIN; NIACIN; IRON (FERRIC ORTHOPHOSPHATE); THIAMINE (THIAMINE MONONITRATE); FOLATE (FOLIC ACID). I happen to know that most of that list represents an attempt to add “nutrients” into the processed rice. But I think it illustrates the point. Moreover, the Tasty Bites rice, simple as it is, tastes better than Uncle Ben’s processed rice product.
Or let’s look at a more complicated Tasty Bites product, their Zesty Lentils & Peas. Here is its ingredient list: Water, Bengal Lentils, Green Peas, Yellow Peas, Red Pepper, Coriander, Sunflower Oil, Sugar, Garlic, Salt, Pepper, Cumin, Chilies. It’s a longer list, but every single one of those ingredients is easily recognizable. Moreover, they are all food, not chemical additives or heavily processed food-like substances. Tasty Bites is just one example company, but it illustrates the lie that packaged foods require a preservative chemical bath. It’s a lie that too many of us have swallowed without question and authors like Michael Pollan are beginning to expose it.