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?

Processed Foods: Is It Ever OK to Break the Rules?

Yesterday’s post introduced the “Tree to Test Tube Continuum” to help understand just what “processed foods” are.  The Continuum makes it easy to see the difference between those foods on the tree end (which we want to focus on) and those on the test tube end (which are best to avoid.)   The trickier part of the continuum lies in the middle zone, where green merges into gray.  Is it OK to eat  anywhere in this zone?

Here’s the approach I take:  Eat as close to the tree as possible, given my time constraints.  Taking advantage of the convenience of minimally processed foods on the Tree end of the Continuum is far less worrisome to me than rigidly adhering to a no-processed-food-prohibition to the point where I’m exhausted and turn to Test Tube foods out of desperation.

No doubt the time dimension has been lurking in the back of your brain, too, since it is very much a part of the processed food inquiry.  In fact, you could safely say our perceived lack of time is a primary driver behind the entire industry.  The more time constrained we feel, the more we are drawn to the convenience of processed foods, as shown below:

 

The Tree and Time Continuum for Processed Foods

Access to real foods, cooking confidence and inspiration, and funds availability also factor importantly in our processed foods decisions.

 

Putting the Tree and Time Continuum side by side helps illustrate how I deal with the mid-zone.  When pressed for time, I break the rules and use foods from further down the continuum, but only to the extent necessary and only from the light gray section up.

  • Dinner, for instance, is our most important meal, so I give it the most time, attention and energy and use foods within 2 steps of the tree:  Vegetables cooked or raw; brown rice rather than white; meat, beans and eggs cooked as necessary; nuts and cheeses; and flavorings made from scratch:  lemons, limes, herbs, spices and minimally processed soy sauce, olive oil, fish sauce, etc.
  • I have less time and inspiration for breakfast and lunch, so I step a little further from the tree, using some frozen foods, some leftover foods and some ready-made soups and sauces.  BUT, I use frozen foods that contain only vegetables, fruit or meat (no Methocel-rich sauces!)  and ready-made soups and sauces containing only ingredients close to the tree that I would combine myself.
  • I keep snacks to a minimum by eating three solid meals a day.  To the extent I want something between meals, it’s usually a bit of a leftover meal, some nuts, fruit, a piece of whole grain toast, etc.
  • For desserts, I eat unsweetened chocolate (definitely processed but pure) plus dried fruit or freshly ground peanut butter (2-3 steps from the tree)
  • In my tea, I have soy milk (definitely processed, but a treat for a non-dairy person) and honey from the tree and some bees.

The Bottom Line

Since a majority of the foods in our diet are processed to some extent, it would be difficult (not to mention dull) to survive without any processed foods, absent a lot of time and cooking know-how.  So consider a more realistic objective:

  1. instead of dropping all processed foods all at once,
  2. begin transitioning to foods that are as close to the tree as possible, given your time, know-how, energy and inspiration
  3. but with the all important understanding that all these factors (time, know-how, energy and inspiration) are changeable.  It IS possible to gain more time by changing grocery shopping habits and locations, increase know how by learning more about whole and natural cooking, get a jolt of inspiration  by treasure hunting for a new ingredient or flavor and take advantage of dozens of other KitchenSmart Strategies(R) that allow for a gradual shifting closer and closer to Tree Land.

Ever wonder what a no-processed-foods-meal looks like?  They may be easier than you think!  Check out the next post for an easy example.

Don’t stay mired in Test Tube Land any longer than you must!  Whole Kitchen Cooking Classes are designed to make you feel comfortable and confident cooking whole and natural foods–and the more we feel confident about having the time and ability to make meals that interest us, the more we can take advantage of wholesome foods closer to the Tree.  Check out the current class schedule.

Processed Foods: The Good, the Bad and When to Break the Rules

If there’s a reliable dietary culprit, “processed food” would be it.  Whether the concern is excess fat, high sodium, too many transfats, sugar overdosing or cancer-causing chemicals, processed foods are high on the list of primary perpetrators.  It’s not a stretch to think a majority of our diet-related issues could be solved or significalntly alleviated just by eliminating these foods.  But first things first:  Exactly what is a “processed food?”

Defining “Processed Foods”

The term “processed food” is actually fairly innocent.  Truth be told, much of our food is processed, i.e., subjected to some kind of “process” to make it fit for human consumption.  For those on the wholesome eating quest, the critical inquiry is not so much whether, but what and how much processing is done to a food.  For this inquiry,  I find the “Tree to Test Tube Continuum” to be a more helpful tool than an either/or definition.

  • The Tree to Test Tube ContinuumOn the completely unprocessed, “Tree” end of the continuum are things like apples, oranges, nuts, celery, carrots and other things eaten “straight from the tree,” so to speak.
  • A little farther from the tree are things that must be minimally processed so humans can eat them at all:  meats, beans and grains must be cooked, inedible barley husks must be polished off, olives must be crushed for oil, etc.
  • Since most of us like a little flavor in our foods, it’s not uncommon to step a little farther and add things like soy sauce, vinegar, chili paste, wine, fish sauce and miso.
  • And sometimes we like things in the winter, when not available in our locale, so we take advantage of frozen and canned peppers, meat, fish, artichoke hearts, pickles, roasted peppers, corn and fruit.
  • Sometimes we are short on time, so we take advantage of multi-ingredient sauces, soups and even entire dishes made by somebody else.  Or we’d like something comforting like pasta, bread, tortillas, bagels and so on.
  • Or we may be really pressed for time and so drop by a fast food joint, pick up a pizza, get some Chinese take out, opt for Hamburger Helper, etc.
  • At times we get a slump in the afternoon and head for the vending machine for giant oatmeal cookie, a diet soda, some mini-doughnuts, or peanut butter crackers, at which point, we are solidly in Test Tube Land.

Must All Processed Foods Be Eliminated for a Healthful Diet?

While it would of course be ideal to eat within a step or two of the Tree, when experts talk about “eliminating processed foods” they are most concerned about those in the  bottom gray zones, and it isn’t hard to see why.  Processed foods in the top half of the continuum are processed minimally and simply, often just enough to make a food safely edible for the human digestive tract.  There is very little, if any loss of nutrients and almost no chemical alteration.   Foods in the lower half of the continuum, on the other hand, are more akin to manufactured products like crayons, tennis balls and sponges except that they are manufactured with food-grade materials, like:

  • Grains that are stripped of their nutrient layers to create fluffy white filler material (then, ironically,  artificially manufactured nutrients are added back)
  • Fluffy filler material from grains that is extruded through machines to form things like pasta shapes, crinkly cereal flakes, curly chips, crackers, and so on
  • Oils that are subjected to a laboratory process where extra hydrogen molecules are injected to increase shelf lives
  • White sugar, added to almost everything, that is produced through a complex refining process that turns tough, fibrous canes into white crystals
  • Handy test tube fillers and thickeners, like Methocel, “a slippery, gooey stuff” made by grinding wood into a pulp and then washing it with chemicals to break it down.  Initially used as a thickener for tile putty and drywall mud, you can now find it in everything from frozen pot pies to salad dressings.
  • Countless test-tube flavors to make food products taste appealing (and scientists are now creating ever more powerful flavors because our taste buds have become numb to what’s currently on the market.)

This much is clear:  Our bodies were designed to run on real food, not factory-made substances, just like cars are designed to run on gasoline not turpentine.  Feed our bodies the wrong fuel and break downs (along with increasingly expensive repairs) are a certain result.  Hence the sound and obvious advice to steer clear of the Test Tube end of the continuum.

Things get trickier, however, when it comes to foods in the middle of the continuum, where green merges into gray.  Is it OK to eat  anywhere in this zone?  That’s the subject of tomorrow’s post, “When Is It OK to Break the Rules?

New Year’s Resolutions: Don’t Underestimate the Power of Good Intention

Passing out invites to our annual Thanksgiving Coffee last week, I stopped by Sue and Scott’s house.  Scott has been losing weight recently and we were chatting about his successes when Susan burst into the room waving a couple cards in front of my face.  “We’re doing it!  We’re doing it!” she babbled and bubbled.  (Sidenote:  Susan is a delightfully excitable person!)

It took a couple minutes to figure out what she was talking about:  Turns out those “cards” were the Commit Cards and Simple Prescription for Good Eating Cards that I had given them at a class–three years ago!  But instead of just pitching them, Susan had put them to use:  On her Commit Card she wrote down her deepest eating desire:  “To do everyday good eating, with Scott.”  Then she mounted the Commit Card on the refrigerator, next to the Simple Prescription for Good Eating Card, which defined “everyday good eating” by way of four simple guidelines.

There those cards stayed, posted on Susan’s refrigerator for three years.  The ones she waved in front of my face were yellowed and faded from kitchen steam, splattered with food and tattered, but they did their job:  Sue and Scott have been successfully following the South Beach Diet for three months.

More importantly, they aren’t just slugging and sacrificing their way through a pain-in-the-neck-diet for a few weeks.  They have made the lifestyle transformations and mind shifts that will make healthier eating a routine and continuing part of their lives.

And better yet, Sue is looking ahead to life after South Beach.Because she doesn’t want to return to her old ways, she is asking me the right questions now, about how to get set up for making good meals without the structure of the diet to rely on.  She’s wondering what to stock in her pantry and how to organize it for easy access.  She knows that planning ahead is critical and wants to begin getting into the habit.  She knows that she and Scott will want a little more variety at the dinner table, which means new recipes that still meet the South Beach guidelines.

Celebrating all the good news, Sue and I had to stop and marvel at the amazing way good intentions work.  Sue and Scott have sputtered, started and stopped over the years, and to be honest, I wondered whether they could really pull this together.

What I didn’t know was how Susan had kept those cards pasted to the frig.  How she had kindled her good eating intentions and kept them strong.  How she had just kept putting one foot in front of the other, steadfastedly making small changes that were all but invisible to the outside eye.

And that’s how big changes are made:  For what seems like forever, you stumble along in the twilight with just the small flame of good intention to guide you.  Then, all of a sudden, it begins getting lighter and you realize that the little flame and all the little steps have taken you halfway up the mountain.  From that point you can look back to see just how much progress you’ve made.

That’s when you realize that the hardest part of the journey–the getting started part–is behind you.  You’re far enough along that there’s no danger of slipping back, and even though the way ahead is long, it’s manageable and the benefits of going forward are clear.

Thanks Sue and Scott for the lesson on never doubting the power of good intention and putting one foot in front of the other.  Oh ye of little faith!

Want copies of the Commit Card and Simple Prescription for Good Eating that helped Sue and Scott?  Cut and paste this paragraph into an email to me.  I’ll be happy to pass them along, just in time for New Year’s Resolutions.

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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