Food Waste and Food Contamination

Food contamination is a big topic these days–and for good reason, with plenty of food recalls making the news.  While certainly concerning, the previous post pointed out that the food scares most often created by Big Food are then used by Big Food as a marketing gimmick.  Potential food safety threats are used to scare us into tossing perfectly fine food, so we must then spend extra dollars to replace it.

As always, balance is necessary here, which is why I was glad to see this post pop up in my email today:

Food Safety: What do Expiration Dates Really Mean?

This post, from Nutrition Action provides a sensible overview of food safety, starting with a quick explanation of all the dates you might find on a package.  In summary, “the vast majority of these dates are related to food quality, not food safety. For example, a product may taste, smell, or feel fresher if it’s eaten by the date on the package—but the date won’t reflect whether the food might be contaminated with bacteria.”

Read more about:

  1. What do all the different dates on a package mean, e.g., “sell by,” “use by,” and “best used by”
  2. What’s the most important factor affecting food safety (hint: the way the product has been handled, especially around refrigeration)
  3. How can you tell if a food has gone bad

Hope this helps you find the right balance between being safe but not getting needlessly sucked into wasting perfectly good food.

Don’t Be Stupid

. . . or How to Be Smarter Than the Average Food Marketer

Food marketers must smirk with glee at how handily they seduce the American consumer. “Americans are so gullible!” they must all be laughing in their cubicles.

Green Giant Veggie Chips

Just because “Roasted Veggie” is in its name, don’t be misled into thinking you’ll get a serving or two of veggies while snacking on a few handfuls of chips. Just eat a real, fresh pepper!

Fortunately for us, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is watching our backs. This group actually examines health claims on packaged foods, going so far as to measure the amount of healthy ingredients a product claims to have. I have followed their investigations for years and the results are nothing less than astounding. Hence this post’s title: “Don’t Be Stupid.”

Green Giant’s Roasted Veggie Tortilla Chips are a case in point. “The deliciousness of garden vegetables and ranch flavor are paired to create a truly flavorful snacking experience.” So says the package.  Before you get too excited about snacking away a couple servings of healthy roasted vegetables, here’s the real scoop from CSPI:

Since when does a snack that’s made mostly of corn (even if it’s whole grain) and oil deserve to talk about “garden vegetables”? Turns out the chips have more ground corn, sunflower oil, and buttermilk powder than dried bell peppers, and more evaporated cane syrup (sugar) and salt than dried broccoli, tomatoes, or carrots.

Our best defenses against food marketers:

  1. Be suspect of any processed foods; by definition, they are “far from the tree” and frequently contain ingredients better left on the factory floor.
  2. READ INGREDIENT LABELS. I’m surprised by the number of people who don’t monitor what’s going into their mouths.  Judging by the (ill) health of our country, it’s fair to say that merely being “food grade” does not assure that a factory-created product does what food should do, i.e., supply vital nutrients for our bodies.
  3. Check out CSPI’s Nutrition Action blogs and newsletters, and start educating yourself on the marketing gimmicks we are bombarded with by the day, hour and minute. You’ll soon start getting the hang of being smarter than the average food marketer.

How a Good Food Goes Bad

Sweet Potato Fries--Do they deserve a healthy halo?

Sweet Potato Fries–Do they deserve a healthy halo?

Another good food gone bad.  It was bound to happen.

I’m not talking about some broccoli gone bad in the bottom drawer of the frig.  I’m talking about the industrialization of poor sweet potatoes.

You might remember five or so years ago, when roasting became popular.  In the midst of our roasting fun, someone discovered the joy of roasted sweet potatoes, a/k/a sweet potato fries when cut to resemble French fries.

Back in those good old days, we started with high quality sweet potatoes.  Consistent with healthy roasting technique, slices were tossed with a moderate amount of high quality olive oil (e.g. 1-2 Tablespoons for 2-3 potatoes.)  Next came a sprinkling of salt that could be very moderate because high-quality, unrefined salt was used, bolstered by freshly ground pepper and sometimes other herbs and spices.  Roasted at high temperatures, the outsides browned while the natural sweetness of the potato condensed and intensified.

Not only did these fries add marvelous flavor and delightful color to our plates, they provided us with increased nutritional variety.   They were also great for people who can’t tolerate regular potatoes very well.

Downfall of the Joyous Sweet Potato

Something so ideal was bound to catch the eye of the industrial feeding machine.  First, trading on their healthy reputation, restaurants began offering sweet potato fries made like regular French fries, i.e., drowned in a vat of fat and coated with half a day’s worth of sodium.  In some restaurants, sugar is even being added to complete the addictive fat-salt-sugar triad that is the hallmark of our addictive fast food industry. (1)

Now the sweet potato itself is being subjected to an “industrial transformation,” not unlike that of countless foods from hamburgers to burritos and noodle bowls to stir fry.  Once perfectly fine and healthful, they are now classic examples of junk food.  Evidentially, the same fate awaits the poor sweet potato.  With consumption rising 30% over the last decade, The Wall Street Journal reports that food behemoth ConAgra has launched its biggest bet in years:  “to reinvent the sweet potato for mass consumption, starting with its shape and sugar content.” (2)

What exactly does it look like when a food goes from edible fruit of the earth to industrial product?  Many of industrial ag’s products (note the use of “products” not “foods”) have been a part of the foodscape so long we don’t even notice them or their effects.  But the re-making of the sweet potato is happening right now, under our noses, providing insight into how our modern food system has been shaped and why it no longer serves us.

The Model  ConAgra hopes to make the sweet potato a modern-day equivalent of the russet potato, which in the mid-1940s was “elevated” by entrepreneur J. R. Simplot from kitchen staple to multibillion-dollar franchise.  Simplot’s “genius” lay in developing a standard-sized, brick-like potato that could be efficiently machine-processed then quickly and conveniently cooked for mass consumption.(3)

The Fallout  We have mass consumed alright–right into an obesity epidemic in fact, with French fries a leading contributor.  Besides shifting the national diet away from nutritional balance, Simplot’s profit-driven efforts lessened valuable plant diversity,(4) diminished potato flavor(5) and compromised small farmers in favor of large corporate farms and mono-culture production.(6)

The Process  20,000 sweet potato lines are evaluated annually, from which scientists breed just a few that have a certain amount of sweetness, consistent deep orange color, a brick-like shape instead of pointed ends, a denser weight and the ability to store for a year rather than six months.  (Side Note:  In a world plagued by hunger, isn’t it interesting that millions and millions are being spent to create a boutique sweet potato for unhealthy frying instead of just growing and distributing plain old sweet potatoes to starving consumers?)

The Motivation  Not to be confused as an avenue to boost consumer health, all of ConAgra’s work is dedicated to the production of deep-fried sweet potato products, driven by the hope “that new, improved sweet potatoes will fuel growth and profit in its $2.2 billion potato business.”  As even the Wall Street reporter acknowledged, although sweet potatoes “are widely perceived as healthier, . . . when fried it’s debatable whether they are healthier than regular potatoes.”

The Misfortune  Nature has given us a joyously sweet edible.  Why do we demand more, to begin with, and when we demand more, what careful natural wisdom are we upsetting?  Contrary to modern industrial thought, we can’t have it all.  Just look at the tomato.  Clever engineering made it ripen more evenly for easier harvesting, but oops, that engineering also “contributed to making tomatoes less sweet.” Breeding for a redder tomato had similar unfortunate consequences.(7)  So what tradeoffs will be required to make sweet potatoes sweeter, or more uniform in color or able to store for an entire year?

The Solution   Easy.  No need to engage in civil disobedience, donate all your money to an environmental group or even write a letter.  Just be smart, be wise, be mindful of what you buy–and start making different choices.

Remember the Every Day Good Eating Motto   You can’t buy good nutrition in a box–or a package or at most restaurants.  So go home and make your own roasted sweet potatoes with real, nature-produced sweet potatoes, minimal amounts of fat and salt and NO added sugar!  They are easy.  You’ll love them.  And it will feel so rewarding to make your own, nutritious food.   Here is the recipe.

Notes:

While this isn’t meant to be a scholarly research paper, many authors have carefully researched and documented the industrialized food system.  Here are some citations that might be of interest as you begin understanding what has happened to our food system:

(1)  Fries or Sweet Fries?  Should you be eating either?  Bonnie Liebman, December 28, 2013, Nutrition Action

(2), (3)  “ConAgra Pushes Sweet Potato to Straighten Up and Fry Right,” Ilan Brat, The Wall Street Journal, May 23, 2010

(4)  “Consider that in the Andean highlands, a single farm may host as many as 40 distinct varieties of potato. . . , each having slightly different optimal soil, water, light, and temperature regimes. . . . (In comparison, in the United States, just four closely related varieties account for about 99 percent of all the potatoes produced.)”  Eat Here, Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a global Supermarket, Brian Halweil, W.W. Norton & Company, 2004, p. 71  (As climate change takes hold, we may find ourselves wishing we had more potato varieties with different tolerances.)

(5)  “About 90 percent of the money that Americans spend on food is used to buy processed food.  But the canning, freezing, and degydrating techniques used to process food destroy most of its flavor.  Since the end of World War II, a vast industry has arisen in the United States to make processed food palatable.  Without this flavor industry, today’s fast food industry could not exist.”  (Leads one to wonder whether the loss of a food’s natural flavor coincides with a loss of naturally-occurring nutrients as well.)  Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser, Perennial, 2002, p. 120.

(6)  “Over the past twenty-five years, Idaho has lost about half of its potato farmers. . . .  Family farms are giving way to corporate farms that stretch for thousands of acres.”  Schlosser, p. 118.  Sadly, Brat reports that Louisiana sweet potato farmers are eager to see ConAgra’s entry into the market, believing that the company’s new, $155 million sweet-potato processing plant as a key to their survival.

(7)  “Why Your Tomato Has No Flavor,” Jie Jenny Zou, The Wall Street Journal; “Bring Back Those Tasty Tomatoes,” The Los Angeles Times in The Daily Camera, “Monsanto Digs Into Seeds,” Ian Berry, The Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2012, p. B9:  “For years, seed companies have emphasized shelf-life and durability in shipping at the expense of taste, Consuelo Madere, vice president of Monsant’s vegetable-seed division, said in an interview.”

Bad Boy Bacon VS. The Cheese Danish

What a way to stir up controversy, angst and anxiety:  At a health fair last week, we demonstrated Spinach Sauteed with Pears and Bacon.  Yes, you read that right.  We made a dish featuring none other than bad boy bacon.  Not turkey bacon, not a vegetarian imitation, not a special lean variety, just good old pure bacon.

As the smell of frying bacon wafted through the exhibit area, people started drifting our way, sheepishly yielding to the scent of a food at once reviled and adored.  Arriving at our booth, their bacon stories and angst poured forth.  It was an interesting window into the conflict and confusion that permeates our food and health thinking.  As we’ve all been taught, bacon is supposed to be a clear cut bad boy, and yet . . .

  • I used bacon grown on a small family farm where the pigs are not confined to live in their own excrement, are fed a wholesome diet and aren’t pumped with growth hormones or antibiotics.
  • The bacon had only four ingredients:  pork, salt, spices and sugar (and the sugar and salt were nominal, just enough to accomplish the curing process.)
  • I combined the bacon with two other pure, whole, real foods (pears and spinach) for a dish rich in nutritional benefits.
  • The bacon was so lean it barely rendered enough fat to saute the pears and spinach, plus I used only 3 ounces of bacon to generously serve four people so each full serving contained only 3/4 of an ounce.)
  • Because the bacon was so flavorful, no fancy preparations or ingredients were needed for great taste, i. e., this is a vegetable dish anyone could make on a weeknight
  • And because the bacon tasted so good, the whole dish was irresistibly good, meaning that vegetable eating became a delightful experience and getting us exactly where we want to be: eating lots of vegetables and fruits because they taste so good.

Far from being a nutritional disaster, then, this scenario represents a nutritional success!

The moral of this story: real, whole foods were never and are not now the source of our nutritional problems.  Manufactured and adulterated foods are the problem.  And at the health fair, there was a perfect example of manufactured, adulterated food in the central exhibit area.  There, as official foods of the fair, were grapes, orange segments–and trays of cheese Danishes that were being eaten without any conflict or angst.  In fact, some visitors to our booth were munching a cheese Danish as they debated whether to partake of our bacon.

Did those pastries really deserve an honored position at the fair?  Did they deserve to be eaten without at least a little angst?  Take a look at the ingredient listing for a typical Danish:*

Enriched flour (wheat flour [translation: refined white flour], malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate (vitamin B1), riboflavin (Vitamin B2), folic acid), water, vegetable margarine [palm oil, water, soybean oil, salt, mono- and diglycerides, artificial flavor, annatto (color), calcium disodium EDTA (preservative), Vitamin A Palmitate], sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, coconut, corn syrup, palm oil, raspberry puree concentrate, yeast, egg yolk, whey (milk) wheat starch, soy flour, mono- and diglycerides, modified cornstarch, raspberries, salt, tapioca dextrin, soybean oil, natural and artificial flavor, orange juice concentrate, soy lecithin, pectin, sodium stearoyl lactylate, corn flour, maltodextrin, citric acid, gellan gum, calcium sulfate, potassium sorbate (preservative), calcium carbonate, xanthan gum, black currant juice, hydrogenated cottonseed oil, malic acid, nut paste, sodium citrate, cellulose gum, agar, sodium acid pyrophosphate, baking soda, egg whites, cornstarch, calcium citrate, artificial color, caramel color, sorbitan monostearate, glycerol monooleate, spice and color, azodicarbonamide, sulfiting agents (preservative)

Seriously?  We’re supposed to eat things that contain stuff like this?  They’re just manufactured products, like crayons, Play Doh, and craft glue.  No one would suggest that you eat those things.  So why eat manufactured products just because they are made with food grade commodities and shaped and colored to look like a food?

  • Food grade commodity wheat is processed, refined and adulterated just like the filler material for Play Doh.  The wheat is stripped of its natural nutrients, leaving a lifeless calorie material which is then sprayed with artificially created nutrients.  Like Play Doh, the rich yellow color in Danish dough comes as more from artificial color than egg yolks.
  • Like red crayons, the “raspberry” filling is mostly just industrially processed corn syrup colored with fruit juice concentrate and food dye.  There’s maybe a thimbleful of real raspberries in the entire Danish.
  • The snow white frosting drizzled artfully over the top is just white sugar in another form.  Maybe it is less harmful than white glue, but it is no better for the body nutritionally.

This sounds so radical.  Can it really be that all our yummy, supposedly healthy breakfast pastries aren’t really that good?  Could it really be better to simply eat one or two real eggs, an ounce of pure bacon plus vegetables and fruit?  Try and see for yourself!   I’ve gravitated toward vegetable and protein breakfasts followed by a mid-morning, whole grain granola snack.  I feel much better.  Get easy ideas from my Tweets and remember this “radical” takeaway:

Healthful eating for wellness is a lot easier than you think:  Eat just real, whole foods.  Ditch the boxes unless they contain products made with only real, whole foods.  Easy.

Next Time:  But cheese Danishes taste so good!  How do I resist?

Food Safety: Why Don’t We Just Eat Peanut Butter?

“You Are on Your Own.”

That was the headline of an editorial admonishing the FDA for its failure to effectively regulate the safety of our food and drug supply in the wake of 2009’s peanut butter scare.  While the FDA does indeed deserve admonishment, do consumers also need a wakeup call?  Hello, never completely trust strangers when it comes to the safety of what you put in your mouth.  Put another way, “Is it time that we begin to just eat peanut butter?”

Yesterday, I ground my own at the grocery store. There were just peanuts inside the grinder and what came out of the machine was just plain peanut butter.  While the system isn’t foolproof, its simplicity leaves little opportunity for the introduction of pathogens.  A huge peanut-product factory, on the other hand, offers countless opportunities.

The bigger the operation and the greater the pathogen opportunities, in turn, the greater the regulatory burden.  Introduce operators who are even the slightest bit opportunistic, an economic culture that celebrates profits over responsibility, and now an economic downturn and you have a suck hole for regulatory dollars.  Can we possibly afford an FDA that could effectively police our massive, far-flung food production and delivery industry?  Even if we could pay for that level of regulation, could it really catch all the shenanigans going on?

Just one year ago, in February of 2008 in the midst of yet another food scare, the Wall Street reported on an outside advisory panel that estimated the FDA needs “about 150% added to its appropriated base budget, phased in over five years, [just] to cope with challenges such as inspecting a rising tide of imports.”

The article didn’t translate that “150%” into dollars and cents, but I’m sure it would have been a big number.  And who knows if that big number would have covered extra inspectors for peanut plants right here in the US of A?  Or people to watch out for the tomatoes running around and making their way into salsa?  In fact, can you imagine the dollars it would take to adequately inspect and police every bottle, can and piece of produce that makes up the 40,000 items in a typical supermarket?

Things have gotten to a point where even product manufacturers are getting nervous.  Dole Food Co., the largest producer of fresh vegetables, “recently started using radio-frequency identification tags to track leafy greens as they move from fields to trucks and through processing facilities.”

Does the insanity of this development strike anyone else?  People are starving and yet we’re going to spend precious food dollars on a huge technological system to ensure what farmers have managed to do for ages:  deliver safe, delicious food.

Do you feel trapped in a crazy spiral yet:  As consumers we love having a huge selection of food products from around the world, manufactured into forms as convenient as possible.  And please be sure that everything is ridiculously cheap.  Now we are discovering that “global reach,” “convenience” and “cheap” combine to form a toxic stew.  No one is going to deliver a fantastic variety of convenient foodstuffs to our doorsteps for free.  Food manufacturers have to profit, and if they must sell at artificially cheap prices, something’s gotta give.  In the case of food, lots of things “give” so we can have cheap, appetizing food in unhealthful quantities:  The environment is one of the biggest martyrs.  Food safety is a close second.

So should we be surprised when peanut plants and chicken slaughterhouses and cattle feedlots and salsa factories cut corners on safety and purity!

Hence my original questions:  While we must demand a more effective FDA, is it realistic to rely on regulation alone?  Maybe we consumers really are on our own-at least partly.  Maybe it’s time we pitch in and do a little detective work of our own.  Here are a few suggestions that have given me a measure of comfort.  As you will see, the underlying theme is eating closer to home, and minimizing the hands and factory processes touching  your food:

  1. Start by reading ingredient labels.  Don’t buy products with ingredients you can’t pronounce. Period.
  2. Better yet, nix or reduce the number of factory products you buy.  In other words, have a piece of Great Harvest toast spread with freshly ground peanut butter instead of some packaged peanut butter cracker concoction. The fewer the hands and processes, the less the risk of contamination.
  3. For things like pasta, salad dressing and olive oil, watch which companies you buy from.  Spend a little time finding ones that still value integrity.  If you find a good brand, stick with it, even if it costs a few more pennies.
  4. Buy from the farmer and local producers in your community who will feel really badly (and whose business will suffer immensely) if tainted food gets traced to them.  Community accountability still counts for a lot.
  5. Trim back a little on our tastes for exotic food stuffs.  Begin to explore and appreciate what can be produced close to home where it can be watched and monitored more closely.
  6. Cook more.  With FDA enforcement questionable, you’re better off relying on the sanitation procedures in your own kitchen.
  7. Freeze your own peaches for winter.  Don’t rely on ones that must go through 20 hands to be shipped here from Chile (they never taste very good anyway.)
  8. Wash your own spinach and lettuce.  Get a good salad spinner to make easy work of it.  Don’t rely on the stuff that must go through a factory.
  9. Don’t demand things like strawberries in December when they must be shipped from across the globe.  Be happy with pears and apples from storage.

What–this costs a lot?  Consider the costs of all the hundreds of peanut products that got pitched over the last month, many of them from our own personal larders.  Consider also the cost of expanding the FDA budget by 150%, and likely a lot more.  While this will only translate to a higher tax bill, you’ll likely see a direct price hike to pay for Dole’s radio-frequency identification system.

What–it takes time?  Consider the time cost of lying in bed with salmonella!  Even when we’re not actually sick, there’s the continuous, time-consuming, energy-zapping drain of fear.  We eat three times a day, 24/7.  Do we want each meal and snack to be an exercise in fear or pleasurable interlude on a hectic day?

What–it sounds draconian?  After all, “we’re entitled Americans who should be able to buy anything we can afford.”  Well, maybe it’s not such a free market after all.  Maybe there are some tradeoffs and responsibilities that go with being the biggest consumers on the face of the earth, ever.

Many happy, healthy and safe meals

Convenience Foods Are Costly, But Can You Make Dinner without Them?

My last grocery bill got me thinking. There was a $2.49 line item for a box of instant brown rice. (I always keep a box on hand in case I forget or am unable to make my weekly pot of rice.) Putting it away, it was such a lightweight, especially compared to the bulk bag of organic brown rice I had also gotten. I ran some numbers to see just how much I pay for the privilege of convenience:

$2.49 buys me

1 box of instant brown rice = 6 cups of cooked rice (enough for about 2 meals)

OR

2 1/2 lbs. of bulk brown rice = 20 cups of cooked rice (enough for 6+ meals)

That’s a pretty dramatic difference, and likely as not, the same ratio applies to most other packaged foods in the store. So why are convenience foods like instant rice flying off the shelves when we’re all being squeezed by high grocery prices? Simple: because they’re so darn convenient! Who’s got time to cook from scratch?

There’s the rub. It would be nice to save some money at the grocery store, and cutting back on convenience foods is an obvious target, but how can we possibly assemble decent dinners without a convenience crutch? Here are three strategies that work for me: Strategic Substitution, Stretching and Simplifying

Strategic Substitution

Strategic is the key here, i.e., where can significant price savings be had for little or no extra time? If you’re hankering for something like tamales or sushi or ravioli, making your own probably doesn’t make sense. But things like rice, beans, meatballs, fish sticks and chicken nuggets are all so easy, why should you pay someone else to make them?

Rice is perfect example. The preparation time is identical: Mix water, rice and salt in a pan and put it on the stove to cook. The only difference is the cooking time: You can’t wait until 10 minutes before dinner to cook regular brown rice. Instead, get in the habit of making a pot of at the beginning of each week. Then it’s just a microwave away from being ready. (In case you don’t use it up, just freeze it.)

How To But what if you don’t know how to cook rice except from a box? Or beans, fish sticks, chicken nuggets or meatballs? Jump to these links:

  • How to Cook Rice
  • How to Cook Dried Beans
  • How to Make Fish Sticks
  • How to Make Chicken Nuggets
  • How to Make Basic Meatballs

More Numbers Here are some more numbers to justify cooking outside of boxes:

  • Dried Beans: $1.00 of dried beans produces the same amount as $6.00 worth of canned beans. Think of the additional savings if those beans serve as a protein substitute for meat!
  • Breaded Fish Fillets: Gorton’s Crunchy Breaded Fish Sticks are $7.49. A 10-minute substitute, using the same kind of fish, costs $3.08, less than half.

More Good News

  • Healthier Cooking lower on the convenience chain not only saves money. It results in meals built from real, straight-from-the-earth foods, without gratuitous additions for fat, salt, sugar, colorings, preservatives and flavors.
  • Tastier Better yet, those real foods taste a whole lot better than cheap, mass-produced factory-made foods.
  • Kinder to the Planet And the icing on the cake: look at all the packaging that’s avoided, the dyes and inks that aren’t being used, and the energy that isn’t being devoted to shipping frozen foods around the country. Hooray!

Ready for more strategies? Read on. . .

Stretching

Sometimes our hand reaches for packaged foods at the store because we’re not too comfortable in the kitchen. The thought of making something completely from scratch sounds impossible. So buy a convenience “starter” but stretch it, and while you’re at it, use healthy “stretchers.”

Soups are a great example. Imagine Foods and Pacific Foods both make pureed soups in large, 1 quart sizes, which are just about half the per-ounce cost of smaller canned soups to begin with. With great flavor and a healthful vegetable base, they are a perfect backdrop for all sorts of easy and equally wholesome “stretchers.”

Remember the pot of brown rice I suggested cooking and keeping on hand? It makes an easy and inexpensive addition to any soup. Ditto the dried beans you’ll want to start cooking once a week to have on hand. Leftover chicken would also taste good in practically any soup.

Now bring in some vegetables. Chard is an easy to prepare, fast cooking and usually pretty cheap option, as are broccoli (be sure to use the stalks, too), spinach and zucchini. Red peppers and snowy white cauliflower are great for color. Frozen vegetables are especially good in winter or when you’re particularly short on time: chopped spinach, peas, corn and diced green beans.

Let color be your guide when deciding on combinations. Imagine golden butternut soup, for instance, with kale and white beans, or deep green broccoli soup with rice and cauliflower florets. You get the picture. . .

In the end, enjoy an easy meal had inexpensively and without sacrificing great flavor or health.

Simplify

No doubt time is a another big reason we keep gobbling up packaged foods despite their price tags. While picking out my box of instant rice, a hurried mom grabbed a box of scalloped potatoes off the shelf next to mine then darted off for the next aisle.

She was right in thinking there wasn’t time to make the traditional bubbly baked potato dish. But a box isn’t her only option. “Simplify” and more alternatives present themselves.

In the same amount of time that it takes to make a packaged potato mix, you could simply scrub and microwave potatoes and top them with grated cheese for a tastier and fresher alternative. For just 5 extra minutes–and half the cost–you could make another simpler option: the microwaved Cheesy Potato Casserole recipe below.

Betty Crocker’s Scalloped Potatoes (including added milk and butter) = $2.70

Homemade Cheesy Potato Casserole: = $1.39

Here’s the Recipe:

Cheesy Potato Casserole

  • 1 ½ lbs. potatoes (about 6 sm-med)

Scrub and puncture several times with a fork to prevent them from exploding. Microwave three minutes, turn each potato and microwave another 3 minutes. Repeat this process until potatoes are soft when squeezed.

While potatoes cook, combine sauce ingredients in a small, microwavable bowl or Pyrex measuring cup:

  • 2 oz. cheddar cheese, finely shredded (about 1 cup)
  • 2 Tbsp. low-fat sour cream
  • 1-2 tsp. stoneground mustard, more or less to taste
  • 2 Tbsp. milk

When potatoes are done, microwave sauce 20 seconds, then whisk to combine. Repeat this process 2-3 times, until sauce is smooth. Avoid overcooking or sauce will become stringy.

Assemble the casserole: Butter a 9” x 5” loaf pan. Slice potatoes about ¼” thick. Lay half of slices in the loaf pan, sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with half of the cheese sauce. Repeat with remaining potatoes and sauce. Eat immediately or, to better meld flavors, microwave entire casserole 30 to 60 seconds.

______________________

We’d all like to think of ourselves as highly intelligent beings, but we’ve been hoodwinked by food marketers. We’ve been hoodwinked into believing we’re too busy or stupid to make anything on our own. Of course marketers want us to believe that. It’s the only way we’ll buy inferior-tasting convenient foods.

So stop believing the marketers. With just a bit of courage and willingness to try, we can do this food thing on our own. Not only will we save money and end up with better–tasting and more wholesome food, it’s very likely we’ll find that being self-reliant is pretty rewarding.

Learning from Shoes

A recent Denver Post article explored the new fitness footware on the market that promises the benefits of a workout, just by walking around. Claims run the gamut from “Tones and defines legs” to “Get a workout while you walk” to “Burn more calories with every step.”

Reading the various claims, I had to chuckle. Am I really supposed to believe I’ll get shapely legs just by wearing a particular shoe? Am I not a little smarter than that?

The Post actually consulted with two podiatrists who agreed that there’s no short cut to fitness. Shoes might ease a particular foot condition or add marginally to whatever walking or exercise you otherwise do, but wearing a particular foot piece is no substitute for lacing up the sneakers and hitting the trails.

Seeing this article on shoe claims reminded me of all the food claims I see walking through the grocery store:

  • “0 grams transfat, same great taste,” proclaims the bright yellow star on a box of frozen fish sticks. (Of course nothing in the star mentions the MSG, disodium inosinate, hydrolyzed corn gluten, TBHQ, methylcellulose and 21 other ingredients in those fish sticks.)
  • Another box of breaded fish fillets proudly announces that it’s a “good source of protein.” (Really, it is fish, after all.)
  • Then there’s a pizza “made with 100% cheese.” (Are pizzas made with something else these days?)
  • And what about Popsicles made with fruit juice (I’m sure a product development engineer thought long and hard to come up with that idea. Of course the miniscule, 10% juice content is dwarfed by these confections’ sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and Yellow 5, Red 40 and Blue 1 dyes.)

Again, am I really supposed to believe that these foods are serious sources of dietary nutrition?

Food claims are so common; maybe we no longer “see” them or subject them to the hard-nosed skepticism they deserve. That’s the beauty of seeing the same kind of game in a different context, in this case, in the context of shoes. It helps make the game more “visible.”

My advice: If you have trouble believing a pair of shoes will walk you into the pearly gates of heavenly fitness, you should have a similar trouble with the claims blazoned across every other packaged food product. Forget all the marketing jingles and slogans and claims. Stick to the one no-nonsense, un-confusing route to a healthy eating lifestyle: The Simple Prescription for Good Eating. More on that later. . . .

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