Saturday, January 28, 2006

On real food, including why I like mold

[Cross-posted at Haec Sunt Verbi Levia]

In my December/January issue of Eating Well is an article, "Faux Food: where have all our nutrients gone?" on the uber-processing that seems to go into so much of what one finds at the grocery store these days. The author of the article, Rachael Gorman, begins with descriptions of two loaves of bread she has in her kitchen: one a loaf of industrially-produced white bread, and the other a loaf of locally made whole wheat bread (amazingly, and rather frighteningly, the former managed to go four weeks--four weeks!!--without developing either staleness or mold). She also briefly goes through the processes by which both loaves were made, and gives the ingredients and nutrition info.

For the enriched white bread, one slice contains: Calories: 80; Total Fat: 1 g; Protein: 2 g; Total Carbohydrate: 14 g; Fiber: 0 g (0 g!!!!); Sodium: 200 mg.

Now for the artisan whole-wheat bread. In one slice: Calories: 101; Total Fat: 0.8 g; Protein: 5.4 g; Total Carbohydrate: 21.8 g; Fiber: 3.3 g; Sodium: 138.1 mg.

Now let's talk about the long-term effects of diets based around the two types of bread:

"Epidemiological studies ... associate a diet high in refined grains [e.g. bread #1] with a higher risk of stroke, weight gain, and metabolic syndrome--a constellation of conditions that predisposes a person to type 2 diabetes and heart disease. A diet high in whole grains [e.g. bread #2], on the other hand, is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, less weight gain, fewer cases of type 2 diabetes, and reduced risk of colon cancer and metabolic syndrome. People who eat more whole grains also tend to have lower bad (LDL) cholesterol and higher good (HDL) cholesterol. [...] Whole grains also appear to increase insulin sensitivity--the body's ability to use the hormone insulin to balance blood sugar. On the flip side, refined grains have been linked to lower insulin sensitivity and unhealthy spikes in blood sugar."

Not to mention that the people who stick to highly refined grains (to say nothing of those who mostly or totally eschew grains and carbs—but that’s another rant altogether) get their fiber, a nutrient that is essential for everyday digestive health, not just with respect to long-term risks like colon cancer. But it isn't just about whole grains. It's also about high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives, and the host of additives that manufacturers add to try to make up some of the nutrition lost to processing. "Juice," at this point, rarely actually means juice anymore. "10% fruit juice" isn't juice, it's watered down corn syrup. "Pasteurized process cheese" isn't cheese, it's a travesty that’s offensive to the very concept of cheese. And things are so laden with preservatives that you can't help wondering what happens when you put it in your own body.

And so, I like mold. Although there is inevitably a little sigh of disappointment when one of the many blocks of cheese in my fridge starts sporting little white and/or teal spots, and especially when those spots become blankets too big to be cut off, I like the fact that the mold likes my cheese--and my bread, for that matter. Its affinity for my food indicates to me that the people who made the food cared more about the flavor and/or nutritional value of the food than they did about extending shelf life to bump up profits. After all, if even mold won't grow on your food, what makes you think you should eat it?

Gorman quotes University of Minnesota whole grains researcher Joanne Slavin throughout the article, but

“I think from a consumer standpoint, for people to say, ‘well, I don’t want processed foods,’ they’re going to have to learn how to cook, be willing to shop regularly, learn how to store foods. It’s going to be this huge paradigm shift before we can get away from the processing that everybody is used to. As long as convenience is such a leading force in people’s lives, processed foods have to be there. People expect it, they want it. Are they willing to put more time and money into less-processed foods? It’s a big decision.”

And yet, given the effects of the alternatives, I have a hard time understanding why people don’t make the decision, at the very least, to decrease the amount of processed food that they consume. Nor am I talking about the elimination of processed food—that’s pretty hard to do, and let’s face it, who doesn’t like a lovely traditional baguette or ciabbatta now and then?—but at least an attempt to up the amount of whole-grain and “real/whole food” that they eat. It could be as simple as buying an inexpensive whole- or multi-grain sandwich bread instead of blindingly white Wonder Bread. I know they’re out there—my parents have bought honey whole wheat sandwich bread for as long as I can remember. It’s even available at Costco, and you can freeze most of it until you get around to eating it (bread is wonderfully resilient like that, even bread that contains a minimum of additives).

Fortunately the word is starting to get out, and some manufacturers are beginning to change how they produce their foods. General Mills, for example, has started using whole grains in their cereals--some people complain about the changed taste, but I think it's an admirable move on the company's part. Still, one of the really sad things about all this is that many people simply can't afford to eat healthily. Buying fresh and organic (let alone locally grown) produce, minimally processed whole-grain bread, meat and poultry raised without excessive amounts of hormones or antibiotics, etc. is not cheap, even if you have access to this sort of food in the first place (which a lot of people don't).

There's a weird sort of irony to it: refined white flour, the kind that's essentially been stripped of all beneficial nutrients, used to be available only to the upper classes--using it was a sign of wealth. Now it's everywhere, and contributing to the malnutrition of those who can't afford any better—or who don’t know better, or who just don’t care.

And it is mind-boggling to me just how many people really don’t care about what they put in their bodies. It’s your body, folks, but it’s the only one you’ve got.