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.


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.”

Hooray! You’re Not Stuck with the Taste Buds You Got

Transforming Our Taste Buds from Foe to Friend

In the battle against the bulge, the tiny taste bud is a formidable foe.  Just look at the defeats it drives us to:  right past the salad bar and into the fast food lane, straight to the cream-laden pasta dishes in the buffet line, and directly to the vending machine when the afternoon begins to yawn.  Face it, we’d all be skinny as rails if we could just muscle these tiny despots into submission.

So it seems appropriate to give some consideration to the thousands of little organs on an average tongue that seem to wield such outsized control over our eating decisions.  Despite the feeling that we are forever enslaved to their despotic whims, can I suggest a more hopeful view:  We’re not stuck with our taste buds.  It is entirely possible to reform them into allies who support, and even encourage, healthy eating choices.

My Story I came to this hopeful viewpoint after seeing delightful results in my life.  For many years, I was a donut junkie.  In my old law office a huge box of donuts and pastries would be delivered every Friday.  I couldn’t resist having a donut.  And a croissant.  And then another croissant.  Yes, I was a pastry pig, and I was no better than a bear in sight of honey when the donut box came in the door.

My pastry pig days ended abruptly, however, after my two children developed food sensitivities and we had to adopt a wheat-free, dairy-free diet.  So ended a diet comprised of mostly bread and cheese products.  It got replaced with a dazzling array of other tastes and flavors from  vegetables, fruits, nuts, meats, alternative grains and beans.

I don’t know the exact point at which it happened, but I distinctly remember a day, about two years into this new diet, when I drove by a donut shop and wasn’t tempted in the least.  How could that be, I wondered, remembering my helpless donut days at the office.

That’s when it dawned on me:  My tastes had changed!  What a powerfully, freeing realization that was.  Even better was the fact that I hadn’t even tried to change them.  By just focusing on the foods that supported our health, my taste buds changed, becoming an ally that supported my choices.  In the years since, several other developments have confirmed my hopeful hypothesis on the malleability of our taste buds.

Nutritionists Are Noticing Too For instance, over the past few years, I’ve begun seeing articles that document other encouraging stories of taste bud reform.  In fact, a recent article acknowledged that “[i]t really is possible to develop a taste for healthy foods you’ve avoided for years, nutritionists say.”  The article then suggested several ways to tweak your taste buds, from taking things slow and adopting an adventurous attitude to building on familiar flavors and avoiding over- or under-cooking.  (Alison Johnson for The Daily Press, reprinted in the Daily Camera, April 7, 2010.)

Strength Training for Taste Buds Soon after my donut revelation, I read Strong Women Stay Young by Mariam E. Nelson, Ph.D., which documented the importance (and benefits) of strength training.  Dr. Nelson explained facts that are now common knowledge, i.e., “[m]uscle cells atrophy if they aren’t used,” and weight lifting reverses that process by using and stressing muscles instead of leaving them sedentary. (p. 28)

This process seemed like a good way to explain what had happened to my taste buds.  Over the years, as my life became busier, my diet shifted increasingly to bread and cheese products since they were fast, easy and transportable.  Eating such a limited range of foods, however, was comparable to leading a sedentary life.  Because they weren’t challenged, my taste buds sank to the lowest level, appreciating and craving only the most elementary flavors and foods.  Not until I began stressing them with more complex flavors did they regain their robustness and sophistication.  Eventually, I no longer wanted “baby foods,” whose cheap sugar and salt deliver an immediate pleasure jolt but not long lasting satisfaction.  Instead I craved full-bodied foods with deep, rich, rewarding flavor.

Ayurveda and the Six Tastes Ayurveda, a five-thousand-year-old medical healing system from India, contributed yet another perspective that explains how my taste buds became an ally on the healthy eating journey.  I was introduced to this system through Jennifer Workman’s Stop Your Cravings, which explained the Ayurvedic theory of the Six Tastes.  According to this theory, foods are sweet, sour, salty, astringent, pungent or bitter.  When foods are combined so that all six of these tastes are present and balanced in a dish or meal, we will experience complete satisfaction.

My donut days represented the exact opposite of Six Taste balance.  By settling for a diet based on just bread and cheese, I not only stunted my taste buds’ development, I starved them of satisfaction, too!  That’s why I couldn’t stop eating donuts and pastries, because my taste buds were craving full satisfaction, not just a temporary sugar high.

Neuroplasticity Most recently, I’ve been reading and hearing about this fascinating development in brain science.  The idea is that the brain is malleable like plastic, even after childhood.  So it’s possible, even as we age, to “rewire” our brain circuits with targeted training.  The theory offers hope that we can address limitations that are seemingly beyond our control.  For instance, a friend is creating a documentary about a woman, paralyzed in a car accident, who has regained sensation in and movement of, her paralyzed limbs.  Another friend with MS can raise her arm high above her head, a feat that was supposedly medically impossible.

Maybe, in a similar vein, neuroplasticity can serve as a metaphor for taste bud reform, offering hope that seemingly intractable taste buds can be remolded in our favor. There is certainly a lot of neural circuitry involved in tasting, as messages are relayed back and forth between taste buds and brain.  So it’s not unthinkable that deliberately exposing taste buds to an ever-broadening array of tastes could rewire the brain to like and crave an ever-broadening array of foods.

The Bottom Line I’m seeing that there are a number of ways to imagine the process of transforming our taste buds.  Regardless of the imagery you use, however, the end result is a happy one:  We’re not stuck with the taste buds we have.  Have hope:  They can be transformed into friendly allies on the healthy eating journey.

Next Up:  Practical tips for setting taste bud reform into motion.

Using Fresh Herbs at 11,000 Feet

. . .  and the “Good to Better Cooking Continuum”

You’d think cooking might fall off the priority scale in a bare bones hut, at 11,400 feet above sea level, in the middle of winter.  Actually, cooking, meals  and food conversation were a good 50 percent of the fun on a recent altitude adventure.  In fact, it was a deep discussion about the proper use of fresh cilantro that prompted this blog.

Heading Into the Barnard Hut

A friend and I start our Altitude Adventure

First, however, some background.  A friend and I accepted a challenge to ski seven miles with some outdoor pros to a backwoods hut in the mountains above Aspen, Colorado.  While it was a cakewalk for them, my friend and I view the trip one of the crowning physical achievements of our entire lives.  Things might have been easier, of course, if we hadn’t hauled in two pounds of hashed brown potatoes, one pound of cheese, 18 eggs and the fixings for a dried apple crisp.

As mentioned, however, cooking was a big part of the trip, which is how we came to be discussing the proper use of fresh cilantro when the world outside was frozen solid.  One of the dinner chefs was planning to make Thai Coconut Soup.  To conserve space, he had mixed the fresh chopped cilantro with the peppers and onions, meaning the cilantro would have to be sautéed with the peppers and onions.  Would this be a bad thing for his soup, he wondered?

The Standard Answer:  How to Use Fresh Herbs

Fresh CilantroThe standard answer is that fresh herbs should be cut as close to serving time as possible and added at the end of the cooking time, to prevent their flavor from cooking out (The Professional Chef, 7th ed., p. 183.)  So technically, my hut companion did a “bad thing” for his soup by mushing the fresh cilantro with the vegetables that had to be sauteed.

Although this answer was “right,” I’m not sure it was helpful.  Assessing things as simply good or bad only seems to contribute to the cooking fear the paralyzes a lot of everyday cooks.  “Am I doing this exactly right?” is a question that plagues us amidst on overload of cooking info in magazines, on TV and all over the Internet.

An Alternative View

Here’s an alternative view:  Maybe cooking was never meant to be an exact science, subject to one-dimensional assessment on a good/bad scale.  Instead, cooking is first and foremost an avenue for making food edible and then, pleasurable.  The object is to simply do the best job possible, with the food gifted us, to make meals that nourish and nurture.

Taking this perspective eliminates the pressure to achieve absolute “rightness” in the kitchen, replacing it with a no-pressure opportunity to just make things better, as we have the time and wherewithal.  Hence the “Good to Better Cooking Continuum,”  where the inquiry is longer judging good vs. bad, but exploring what might make a good thing better.

Thai Coconut Soup at 11,440 Feet

Everyone in the hut is pretty satisfied with the Thai Coconut Soup, even if the cilantro was cooked, not fresh. (Ben the Soup Chef is first on the left; I'm third from the right.)

In this view, cooking becomes something like a treasure hunt.  All along our journey we find nuggets of information to make our meals ever more enjoyable.  Step-by-small-step, we utilize these finds and keep nudging our “good” baseline a little to the right, towards “better.”

The Thai Coconut Soup was a perfect example.  It was magnificent!  Could it have been better if the cilantro had been freshly chopped and sprinkled on at the end?  Sure.  But that’s just a trick for making it magnificent-plus on the next go round.

Tomorrow’s post:  A Thai Coconut Soup recipe,  plus, in the vein of offering tasty tidbits for your treasure hunt, be sure to check out  all sorts of tools, information and inspiration you need to make your eating life better—especially when it comes to vegetables.

Vegetable Paradise–An International Perspective

Just in time for Thanksgiving, I gave a talk last night:   “Getting Thankfully to the Promised Land of Vegetables.”  Just before the talk began, I was surprised by the arrival of some Japanese students, then a Russian, then a group of Saudis and another of Kuwaitis.  A Taiwanese student rounded out the group of 10 international students.

They are all here for a short language-immersion program at the University of Colorado, and their professor thought a healthy eating class would be a perfect language-immersion activity.  At first, I wasn’t so sure.  I quickly ticked through my planned talk, panicking that it wouldn’t be relevant or of interest to young people from all points of the globe.  There really wasn’t time for much adjusting, however, so I dove in.

Turns out, the topic was just fine for our international attendees–and they were a wonderful audience.  As interesting as anything was learning from them about food issues in their countries.

  • In Russia, vegetable eating isn’t the alien act that it is in our country.  Because food is so highly priced, nearly 90% of the population has a garden and derives a good part of their diet from it.  So they end up with a vegetable-rich diet automatically.  And getting exercise is no problem, either.
  • Kuwaitis are dealing with diabetes, too.  One student’s mother makes sure his father eats a lot of broccoli, among other things, to help with his diabetes.
  • Also in Kuwait, dieting is the rage among women.
  • In Taiwan, organic foods are becoming quite popular.  One student worked for a successful German importer of organic nuts and spices.
  • During the cooking portion of the class, we prepared a Light Orange Spinach Waldorf Salad.  It was interesting to see how many of the ingredients were common in other countries, e.g., Bosc pears, spinach, Asian pears and walnuts.
  • Finally, when the conversation turned to the seasonal foods in the salad, speaking to an international audience got me thinking about the meaning of this concept in countries that don’t have so many or such distinct growing periods.  In Saudi Arabia, for instance, do they ever have cool-weather crops?  Do they ever not have warm weather fruits?  Hmmm . . .

Bottom line:   American cuisine has been delightfully enhanced by the addition of international flavors.  Maybe our whole conversation about healthy eating could benefit and take on greater dimension with more international perspectives.

Q & A: Are Carrots and Peas Too High in Sugar?

That was one of the questions from a talk I gave the other night.  A young woman had heard that peas and carrots should be avoided because of their high sugar content.

Do I try to answer her question from a scientific, technical standpoint:  Put peas and carrots in the witness stand and cross examine them?  Or do I step back and ask, “Where did that question even come from?”

On average, we consume 142 POUNDS of sugar each year (that’s as of 2003, up 19% from the 119 pounds we consumed in 1970.)*   Every day, on average, we consume 13.5 teaspoons of sugar, just in the sodas we drink.  A quick perusal of Starbucks’ nutritional information shows that we get another eight to 15 teaspoons in our morning coffee drinks.  The morning muffin we wolf down–even a “healthy” Whole Wheat Honey Bran one–has another 6 or more teaspoons of sugar.  That’s a total of 27.5 to 34.5 teaspoons of sugar–and we haven’t even gotten to lunch yet.

Ever wonder how tough and rough stalks get turned into pure white crystals?  Image from

Ever wonder how tough and rough stalks get turned into pure white crystals? Image from***

Given these facts, does it not seem just a little preposterous, a little audacious, to criticize peas for having 1 tsp. of “sugar” per 1/2 cup?  What’s more, peas’  “sugar” is a far cry from the white stuff we spoon into our coffee, or the high fructose corn syrup we gulp down in our sodas.  It requires none of the test tube processing required to mutate a stalk of sugar cane into crystals of white sugar or an ear of corn into a sweet syrup.  And unlike those sweet mutations, the “sugar” in peas isn’t void of nutrients but comes bundled with an amazing assortment of valuable vitamins and minerals (**see below for details.)

A Goggle search pulled up an article that might be prompting these kinds of questions.  That article pronounced peas “high” in sugar based on comparisons to spinach and broccoli (having 8.2 grams, 0.13 grams and 1.5 grams per cup, respectively, but with no mention made that a cup of spinach is one sixth the weight of a cup of peas.)   The article warned that consuming foods high in sugar, even from fruits and vegetables, is likely to cause weight gain and an increased chance of developing diabetes.  It cautioned against eating peas “unless you really enjoy them.”

All I can think is that we should be so lucky if people would eat peas!  In a nation where only one person in ten eats the recommended number of fruits and vegetables and where we consume toxic amounts of processed, refined foods in oversized portions, it would be tremendous if we would eat whole, natural vitamin-and-mineral packed food like peas–and carrots, too.

Maybe, instead of dissecting and worrying about the sugar and calories in peas and carrots, we should be looking at their sweetness as a little gift from nature–so we aren’t stuck eating bitter dandelion greens and bland spinach all the time.  Maybe we should say “thank you,” instead of being horrified–and then sneaking in the freezer for a dip of Chunky Monkey (7 teaspoons of sugar in a 1/2 cup serving).

The bottom line:  Eat your peas and carrots, just like your mother said!

* From GOOD, October 8, 2007, drawing on statistics from Center for Science in the Public Interest. By the way, 142 POUNDS of sugar is the equivalent of 13,995 teaspoons of the stuff–another reason to wonder why we would worry about the 1 teaspoon of sugar in a serving a peas that would amount to only 365 teaspoons annually if we only would eat a serving a day

**From  Green peas are a very good source of vitamin C, vitamin K, manganese, dietary fiber, folate and thiamin (vitamin B1). They are also a good source of vitamin A, phosphorus, vitamin B6, protein, niacin, magnesium, riboflavin (vitamin B2), copper, iron, zinc and potassium.

***Transforming sugar cane into sugar also has serious environmental and social justice implications according to an article in Seedling, July 2007

Mutant Produce Now Comes Complete with Stickers

Hybridized fruit now sports brightly colored, impossibly sticky skin growths

Hybridized fruit now sports brightly colored, impossibly sticky skin growths

Do you remember when you could buy a pear, wash it, then eat it?  Not anymore.  Mad scientists have successfully hybridized every last produce species.  Shortly after harvest, fruits and vegetables now develop a brightly colored, impossibly sticky scab on the outer skin.  Being highly toxic, the scab must be removed before eating, presenting consumers with an annoying conundrum: Gouge the little devil out with a fingernail (if you have one), and risk packing your nail with pear pulp?  Or slice off the scab, losing a good part of the fruit and dirtying a knife in the process?  Whichever route you follow, the best part is saved for last:  tossing the scab into the trash, there to join millions of others, further clogging already overflowing landfills.

So I’m back to gouging one of those darned stickers from my pear this morning, wondering why a paper sign attached to a box of fruit can’t adequately identify the contents?  Guess it’s another reason to buy from the farmer’s market. . . .

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

Cooking Fear? Part 4

Prescription for Perfectionism: Limiting Exposure and Sticking to a Comfortable Creative Zone

Yesterday’s post talked about relaxing our expectations. That can be hard to do on a jam-packed schedule. One thing that can help: Limiting our exposure to things that fan the flames of panic. Seeing a whole pile of recipes clipped from the newspaper, for example, can easily get us whipped into a frenzy of disappointment. “Why haven’t I made any of those?!” we moan in despair.

That’s where limiting our exposure comes in. In other words: Turn off the TV (or at least the ads) if that fuels preconceived notions about what your meals should look like. When reading magazines, stick to the articles and don’t dawdle over the lovely pictures of homemade butternut squash and Gorgonzola ravioli or the shots of some professional chef preparing an apricot stuffed rack of lamb. While on the Internet, don’t follow the yellow brick road into a land of infinite recipe possibilities. Don’t linger over mailers showing all the cool new kitchen gadgets on sale at your local department store.

Instead, spend your time actually cooking, not being convinced that you could be doing a better job cooking.

Less is indeed more, as I repeatedly stress in my book. And that’s why de-cluttering, winnowing the chaff, and otherwise limiting our kitchen stuff is one of the most important KitchenSmart steps we can take.

So are we stuck with hamburgers and spaghetti for dinner? Is there any place for creativity?

Of course we’re not stuck with the same old thing for dinner every night and of course there is a place for creativity in our cooking, as long as it doesn’t stress you out! In other words, it’s a balancing act between too much and too little: Do stretch a little in the kitchen, but not to the point of stressing out.

Not surprisingly, balance points differ. Like an adrenalin junkie, I thrive on culinary challenge. Finding new uses for tomatillas, experimenting with totsoi greens and taking a flying leap with a completely unusual recipe don’t leave me feeling anxious.

Figure out where your stress point is, then be mindful about staying close to it. (Note that “staying close” includes stretching a little beyond it at times.) And once you know where your comfort territory lies, limit your exposure and keep your expectations in the same zone. This leaves you free to take on a little creativity now and then, but as a fun adventure rather than a daunting cross to drag around the kitchen.

Tomorrow, the final solution: “Dispense with the nay saying.” In the meantime, share your ideas for facing down our kitchen fears. . .

Cooking Fear? Part 3

Prescription for Perfectionism–Relax

Previous posts opened the subject of cooking fears and where they might have come from. My theory: Blame the Olympics! In fairness, however, the Olympics aren’t really to blame. They are just a symptom. The perfectionism, complexity and audience intolerance they encourage are just where we find ourselves at the dawn of the 21st century.

The bigger question is: What can we do to avoid the pitfalls of this trio? How can we ease our fears and make cooking a more pleasant experience, as it should be. After all, food is a pretty nice part of our lives.

Here are four solutions I see, all maddeningly simple: Relax. Limit your exposure. Have fun. Dispense with naysaying.

Start with the first prescription: Relax. Relax the expectations. Relax as we cook. Relax at the store.

Of course that’s what the experts say about all our stress-related maladies. Just relax. I’ve been tempted to wring some necks when given that advice. “Give me a specific remedy, a list of things I can do,” I wanted to shout.

There are indeed specific things we can do to make mealtimes more manageable and enjoyable. That is what my book is all about. But to begin with, we’ve got to feel good about heading to the kitchen, and that takes relaxing our expectations.

No doubt about it, that is hard work. Imagine putting a plate of black beans and rice on the table with a simple zucchini sauté on the side and being completely at ease. No garnish. No MSG-hyped flavor. No exotic ingredients. No designer dinnerware. Just reason to sit down, slow down for 15 minutes, relax and savor.

In the section of my book on “Deadly Expectations,” I tell the story of a friend who is both a cookbook author and experienced dietician, i.e., the last person on earth you’d expect to have problems cooking. Nevertheless, she was distressed one day about the sorry state of her meals. From the way she talked, it sounded like she and her husband were living on fast food burgers and take out pizza. Actually their meals were not so bad at all: vegetables every night, lots of fruit, balanced meals, and whole foods without a lot of excess fat or sugar. The distress she felt was just because her meals were a little less interesting than usual, and with good reason,since she was busy finalizing a book and had little time for cooking. So there you have it: unrealistic expectations robbing us of mealtime pleasure.

One of the participants in my KitchenSmart series came back after the first class having discovered a great antidote for unrealistic expectations: a glass of wine while making dinner! It put everything in just the right perspective, she informed us.

Tomorrow, how limiting exposure can help. . . .

Cooking Fear? Part 2

Yesterday’s post raised the topic of cooking fears and whether Olympic-inspired perfectionism, complexity and audience intolerance were at least partly at fault. Let me connect some dots to make sense of that claim.

There’s good evidence that the food world is spiraling into the stratosphere of perfectionism and complexity: Consider the sheer amount of cooking information we’re exposed to: dozens of food shows and entire food networks, hundreds of internet sites devoted to cooking and recipes, food sections in practically every newspapers and scores of magazines, cooking videos all over YouTube, live cooking classes available in dozens of venues, huge cooking stores and cooking catalogues, and of course, thousands upon thousands of cookbooks.

Each week, in cooking shows and classes, chefs (me included!) excitedly share hundreds of new recipes, all manner of exotic new foods, unique spice combinations, ever-better knives and pans and the latest must-have gadgets.

Meanwhile, we’re all exposed regularly to professionally prepared restaurant foods and to pictures of perfectly styled foods on TV and the internet, in magazines and newspapers and all over food packaging.

Not that all this is all bad! On the one hand, it has fueled a wonderful interest in food and cooking and has undoubtedly eased a lot of cooking fears. After all, if we suffer from a lack of fundamental cooking skills, there’s no better remedy than attending a cooking class. Seeing fish properly prepared goes a long way towards easing the fear of cooking fish.

On the other hand, courtesy of the law of tradeoffs, everything—even good things—come with both helpful and not-so-helpful consequences. In this case, there has been almost too much of a good thing. There has come to be so much cooking stuff, that is so perfect and fairly complex, that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by unrealistic expectations–and fear of not living up to those expectations. Think about it:

  • With magazine covers graced by picture-perfect entrees, the un-garnished, un-styled plates we rush to the table at 6:30 or 7:00 after a full day of work undoubtedly do look a little dumpy.
  • Did you know that multinational chains spend millions of dollars over many years to develop the artificial flavors that go in their food products? Once our taste buds are warped by these test-tube flavors, how can we possibly compete with just the simple, unadorned flavors of real foods?
  • Do you ever see a TV chef subject their creations to the critical eye of a picky child or spouse—and then have to endure that most defeating phrase of all: “Yuck!”
  • When professional TV chefs prepare meals of perfection in just 25 minutes, what’s wrong with us that it takes more like 45 minutes or an hour?
  • Speaking of perfection, how can we poor, multi-tasking home cooks possibly make meals that compare to the ones slaved over by a professionally trained, full-time chef in a fancy restaurant?
  • What about those Iron Chefs, creating fabulous concoctions on the fly—when it’s such a struggle to just follow one of the “quick and easy,” 29-minute recipes from the newspaper?
  • For those intimidated by deep-frying or immersion blenders, it’s understandable when every shopping season brings a new must-have appliance or gadget to buy and master: Besides the standard food processors, microwaves and blenders we have yet to figure out, there are multi-tasking stand mixers, clay pots, cast iron skillets, panani presses, flip waffle-makers, rocket blenders, mini-slow cookers, electric grills and sandwich makers.
  • And to prove that I may be as guilty as anyone: where once it was just great to make a potato and carrot beef stew, now it takes a Beef Stew with Mediterranean Spices (see my blog of last week!), containing eggplant that has to be salted for 30 minutes for some reason I can’t quite remember and with exotic spices I’m not sure I have and am less certain I’ll like.

So all in all, maybe it’s not hard to see why we’re feeling just a little intimidated in the kitchen.

What do you think? What’s behind our cooking fears? More importantly, what should we do about it?

Tomorrow’s Post:  Prescription for Perfectionism

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