Monday, April 8, 2013

What is Real Food?

As part of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, we bring you recipes for real food. But, what is real food? Food in the 21st century includes a whole lot of strange stuff: yogurt in a tube, bread with two dozen ingredients, or spaghetti sauce with as much added sugar per serving as a sugar cookie. Are these real food?

The best definition of not "real," that is, processed food I've found comes from Melanie Warner, the author of Pandora's Lunchbox. You can see her appearance on the PBS News Hour: Seven Foods You Think are Healthy but Aren't. Her definition: if you can't make it at home with those same ingredients, it's processed food. Processed food is made with industrial processes and it uses ingredients that you have no access to (nor do you even know what they are).

This definition can help you figure out what is real in your local supermarket. Once upon a time, we said, "stick to the perimeter of your supermarket, and you'll find the real food." But, that's not true anymore. You can find yogurt in a tube in the dairy section, chicken and pork plumped up with salt solutions in the meat department, and cottony highly refined white bread in the bakery, all departments on the perimeter of the store.

This begs the question: what is wrong with processed food? Plenty!
  • Processing removes nutrients. This is usually done to improve shelf life. Processing strips out anything that can spoil and takes with it nutrients. 
  • Processed food utilizes sugar, fat, and salt to make it hyper-palatable. That makes it very hard for many people to stop eating it so they over-consume calories and get little nutrition.
  • Processed food emphasizes flavor over nutrients. Processed foods contain a lot of calories from sugar, starch, and fat but little nutrition. Unlike real food, processed foods are not nutrient dense.
  • Many processed foods tout the little bit of nutrition they do contain, trying to convince you that they are healthy. Drinks with lots of added sugar and some vitamins added. Cereal with lots of added sugar and bit of whole grains. This is about marketing, not healthy eating.
Back to the three foods mentioned at the start - are they real?

Go-Gurt, the best known yogurt in a tube, is thickened with modified food starch, gelatin, and carrageenan. (Real yogurt thickens naturally through the action of the beneficial bacteria.) It's artificially flavored and contains extra sugar to make it hyper-palatable. How much sugar? Your average strawberry yogurt, which is plenty sweet, contains 25 g of sugar in 8 oz., 12 g of that is added to sweeten the yogurt while the rest occurs naturally in milk. An equivalent amount of Go-Gurt has 35 g of sugar. That's an extra 2 ½ teaspoons of sugar. Yes, this stuff is sweet!

A popular brand of manufactured white bread contains 29 ingredients. Take out the 4 that are vitamins used to enrich the seriously processed wheat, and that leaves 25. Things like  calcium sulfate and calcium propionate that act as preservatives. Because, really, bread is supposed to last a month without molding, isn't it? Things like DATEM, a dough conditioner and azodicarbonamide, a bleaching agent (incidentally, that one is banned in Europe). Are these things edible? Well, sure - people eat them everyday! But, they are an indicator that this product is heavily, heavily processed.

How about the jarred spaghetti sauce? Again, there's that sugar in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. Anything with high-fructose corn syrup immediately gets the processed label. It is sweeter than white sugar, it has certain properties that make it very useful in manufactured foods, and it's really cheap. Why is there so much sugar in a serving of spaghetti sauce anyway? Some brands contain up to 3 teaspoons of sugar per serving.

Melanie Warner doesn't say you should eat NO processed food. But, when the average American eats a diet that is 70% processed, we have a problem - an obesity problem, a diabetes problem, a very serious health problem. Awareness is key - know what is processed and choose something else for most of your food. Take control of your diet. Read labels. Learn to cook simple yet tasty food - we have lots of recipes for that here at School of Eating Good. Yes, processed food tastes so damn good. It's engineered to be that way. But, it's not engineered to keep you healthy.

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