The Secret of Choosing Worthy Food

caramel coloring

When students or friends discuss a food product (or edible food-like substance, thank you Mr. Pollan) inevitably the need to categorize the substance as “good” or “bad” arises.  We humans do love to glorify and demonize.  I generally disappoint when entering these discussions.  Having been steeped in academia for 17 years, I can’t help but throw questions back on the ask-er.  Encouraging critical thinking rather than giving answers is preferred in higher learning.

No matter if the food in question is marshmallows or apples, I will ask “What is it made of”?  If the food is a WHOLE food, the case is closed right away for most folks.  Understanding of where the food may have grown is easy to imagine.  We may want to know if it is organic or not – fair enough.  But with that knowledge the grocery cart can move forward.

But WHOLE foods are not what the grocery store is full of regardless of the name of the establishment.   There are boxes and packages, loaves and bins, powders and promises.  If the question “what is it made of” is responded to with a shrug, I might suggest that the potential consumer have a lookie at the list of ingredients on the package.  Anything there recognizable?

We tend to overlook a lot, trusting Mother FDA over Mother Nature.  A good example is “caramel coloring”.  Now that sounds harmless enough.  You brown some sugar and add some liquid and whatever, right?  Actually this seemingly benign ingredient is pretty complex.    Caramel color is a colloid made by adding acetic acid (or other acids) to sugars and starches.  Colloids have electrical charges depending on what they will be used for.  Colloids also emulsify liquids.  The color comes from FD&C Red Dye #40.

So the secret, the cut to the chase answer to whether or not a food is worthy of putting in our bodies is this:
Is this something I could make in my kitchen?
I can’t make caramel coloring in my kitchen.
I can make tofu.  I have made tempeh.  But there is no way that I could ever make isolated soy protein powder.
If I had an oil press I could make olive oil but there is no way on earth I could hexane extract, steam deodorize and bleach a seed oil to make it odorless, tasteless and refined.
Citric acid – isn’t that just lemon juice or something?  Actually no.  Citric acid is calcium citrate that has been treated with sulfuric acid to convert it to calcium sulfate and citric acid.  Besides food uses it is used to etch concrete floors and clean iron and copper oxide from boilers.  I’d need more than Walter White and his meth lab to make this stuff.

Here are the cliff notes to choosing food:

•    Don’t trust promises on labels.  “Natural” means nothing.
•    Read the ingredient list even if you have to pull out your reading glasses.
•    Make sure each ingredient is an edible food you recognize.  If you’re not sure, google it.
•    Figure out if it is something you could make in your kitchen or not.  If it requires a laboratory or heavy machinery, be cautious.

Know what you’re eating.

“We are indeed much more than what we eat, but what we eat can nevertheless help us to be much more than what we are.” – Adelle Davis

8 thoughts on “The Secret of Choosing Worthy Food

  1. For about 90% of the instances out there, I completely agree – but I do have to add one caveat, or at least a possible acceptable exception to the rule. For those of us with food allergies and intolerance, there are some completely chemistry set based items that are pretty hard to just wave away and refuse because I can’t make them at home.

    I’ve got no idea how I’d make xanthan gum, guar gum, or that citric acid you mentioned. But those tiny amounts of controllable but vital chemistry set gifts mean I can make a loaf of gluten free bread at home using for 99% of its mass good stuff like freshly ground brown rice, buckwheat, and a dollop or two of homemade yogurt and get a bread that I can afford AND spell, well. MOST of the ingredients. (The store bought stuff? Not only too pricey for me – but most are a solid ICK!) Whole real food should make up the bulk of a person’s diet, but I might suggest a little caution in painting everything “unnatural” as evil. (One of the many reasons I love this site and your work Cynthia – you present food that is good for both the body AND the soul. Into every healthy diet a few brownies must land!) Not a criticism of this site at all – but just a side word because today the media LOVES nothing more than to give everyone a view of the world painted in complete absolutes. Like you said at the start, we do love to demonize or wax poetic about things. Sometimes good food can’t be lumped strictly into fish or fowl or good red meat!

  2. True Jenna. I don’t think that anyone can NEVER eat things you can’t make in your kitchen – hence the “be cautious” not “don’t ever”. I just want to encourage people to know what they are eating.

  3. Interesting article! One thing I’m curious about is baking soda. I haven’t really researched it, but it sounds harmless enough and has been used for a long time, although I have no idea how it’s made and doubt I could make it in my kitchen. Is this considered a whole food?

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