Sunday, March 14, 2010

In Defense of Food

I've been ruminating over this book for a week or so now. I'm not going to get into a whole lot of specifics about the book itself (it's been out long enough there's a zillion better reviews out there and easy enough to find!), but I'm finding I just can't stop thinking about it and it's having a pretty profound effect on how I feel about food.

Which is kind of strange, because in this book (In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan), he doesn't say anything I didn't already know. Really, it's like he went into my head, extracted everything I know and believe about nutrition, and put it down on paper. But somehow having it all laid out coherently was absolutely mind blowing.

Or rather, it wasn't particularly mind blowing, initially. Frankly, I was reading it and feeling rather smug. Nutrition science doesn't really know jack? I knew that. I've known that since the time I was a gym rat and discovered this whole subculture of people who weren't buying the low fat dogma - and they were making sense. Avoid processed foods? Hell yeah, we've been eating like that for years. Fruits and vegetables as the basis of your diet? Yeah, I knew that. And so on and so forth.

So, I'd just finished the section of the book where he talks about how you should 'Eat Food', meaning avoiding processed food. Seems simple enough, but he argues that the problem is a lot of the stuff you might think is 'food' is really more a food type substance (ever looked at the ingredient list on a standard loaf of supermarket bread?). And yeah, feeling smug, I went to the fridge to get myself a snack.

And what should catch my eye:

That's the ingredients on the sour cream (full fat, thank you!) I've been buying for years. All that time, I never looked at the ingredients. I assumed, because I was buying, you know, sour cream, that it contained, say, milk, cream, bacteria.

WHAT THE HELL IS ALL THAT STUFF?? Why is there corn starch in sour cream? Guar gum? Carrageenan??

Now, this stuff may all be completely harmless. But it's not sour cream.

This was where my mind got totally blown. And I started reading ingredient labels of everything in my kitchen (cottage cheese? basically the same ingredient list as the alleged sour cream). And man, there's a hell of a lot more processed food in my kitchen than I thought.

What am I going to do with this? Well, for starters, I'm reading ingredient lists. I've found a brand of sour cream that contains only cream and bacteria, and a brand of cottage cheese that's the same. I'm going to be making some other changes, here and there, and focusing on keeping a wide assortment of fruit and vegetables available at all times.

But to be honest, I'm kind of pissed off about this. When and how did it become okay to say something is sour cream when it really isn't? Why should I have to obsessively read ingredient lists just to make sure that the sour cream I'm buying is, in fact, sour cream?


guar gum, carob bean gum, and carrageenan are thickeners, as is corn starch, of course. Sodium citrate is a preservative, as far as I can tell, as is, I assume, the citric acid. is this stuff bad for you? I don't know, but one of Pollan's arguments is if you have to start adding this kind of stuff to food, what have you taken out that makes them necessary? Processed food is often processed in ways that wind up removing a lot of the stuff that is good for us, which then has to be added back in. Frankly, I want my sour cream to be thick on its own, not because it's had a quartet of thickeners added to it.

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