Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Some Thoughts on Food

I recently read Michael Pollan's books, The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food. The first book is about where our food comes from. He discusses where the ingredients that make up four different meals came from. It's an interesting background to the second book, in which he discusses what he thinks we ought to eat. On the cover is a picture of red Romaine lettuce and it has a yellow band around it with his concise conclusion: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Defining this phrase and discussing how to implement it is the major goal of the book. In discussing the part: "Eat food" he makes a comment about how to decide if what you're eating actually IS food. One rule of thumb he talks about is whether your great grandmother would recognize it. A trip to the local grocery store, part of one of the major national chains was an interesting experience in light of what I'd been reading.

One thing you often read is to "stick to the perimeter of the store". You'd think this is good advice. That's where the produce, dairy, and meat is. But is pre-marinated, ready-to-cook meat still real food? How should I know? I have no idea what they put in their marinade. What about "fat free half and half", a product found in the dairy section? Or the "Grapple"--apples somehow flavored with "real and artificial grape flavorings"? Would my great-grandmother recognize any of these? And, if I stick to the perimeter of one of my favorite stores, I'd have to eliminate a lot of food from my diet--beans, rice, pasta, baking ingredients and breads. Then there's the vegetables. Some canned and frozen vegetables are well worth eating, and are pretty nutritious, too. Canned tomatoes, pumpkin puree, canned beans and frozen baby onions are good examples.

That trip to the store, along with what I'd been reading, got me thinking--a lot.
I started to wonder what my great-grandmothers would have fed their families. I know nothing about my great-grandparents on my dad's side of the family, so that leaves my Calabrian great-grandparent's food to use as a guage. I googled.

I discovered that my great-grandparents ate a variation on the much-touted Mediterranean diet. However, they ate a lot of pork, something we don't think of as being a part of that diet. They ate lots of fish, since Calabria is the toe of the boot--right on the Mediterranean Sea. The region produces 25% of Itailan olive oil, so olive oil and olives would have been a big part of their diet. They ate a lot of pasta and polenta. Vegetables were a major part of their diet, too, particularly eggplants and tomatoes. Their food was spicy, using lots of peppers. Butter and cheese were also a part of their diet. Desserts were mainly fresh fruit, particularly citrus and figs. Today they grow a lot of clementines, a variety of orange. They made fancy desserts mainly for special occasions such as weddings and Christmas holidays. Breakfast was often biscotti and coffee. Cappuccino is a breakfast beverage. I didn't see any references to alcoholic beverages except for wine, which is another thing this region produces.

Family meals consisted of a first course--mainly soups, pasta or a rice dish. The second course is either a small meat or fish dish, accompanied by a side dish, usually vegetables. Here, the Italians veer away from what we Americans are familiar with--they eat their salad after the main course, to cleanse the palate before dessert. I remember that from my childhood. My grandfather always ate his salad at the end of the meal. The last course is usually fruit, fresh and cold, or dried fruits with nuts. Celebratory meals would add a starter course of antipasti and a final course of a fancier small dessert. Meals end with coffee, usually espresso.

That's what my great-grandmothers were feeding their families. It's a pretty healthy way to eat, according to current nutritional wisdom. The nutritionists might think it's a bit high in fat, what with all that pork and full-fat dairy. But they didn't eat large portions of those foods. They mostly ate vegetables, which is exactly what Michael Pollan (and our nutrition experts) recommends, after he finished the research and writing of his books.

The question then becomes, how do I do that? How do I find that kind of food? It's getting harder and harder to do so in our supermarkets. I was shopping with my husband the day he found the Grapple and I said to him, "Do you realize how little actual food is in this store?" I've noticed over the three decades in which I've been responsible for the food purchases for a family that there is less and less real food. It's getting harder and harder to find plain ingredients to cook with because even the simplest thing now has a chemical soup along with the simple ingredient. Take tomato paste--one brand had tomatoes and a bunch of other stuff. The other had one ingredient-tomatoes. My question is--if one company can figure out how to make a product without the chemicals, why do other companies think they have to put them in? Anyway, I read the ingredient lists. If I don't know what the ingredients are and what they're made from, I don't buy it.

The other hard part is figuring out what are the best things to eat. It seems like every time you read an article about healthy eating, they have new information that contradicts what the current wisdom is. When you dig into the research, you come up with studies that seem to have been ignored because they don't fit in with the current way of thinking. I found this gem today about high fat dairy and fertility: Eating Ice Cream may Help Women to Concieve. I see stuff like this all the time. Chocolate is good for you. So is coffee. And alcohol, particularly wine, especially red. Reminds me of Woody Allen's film, "Sleeper", where he wakes up in the future and steak and hot fudge sundaes are health food. Yet a different study will be reported saying exactly the opposite. Do I want to be a guinea pig in the unscientific cultural research that's taking place by default as we try to follow expert nutritional advice that may or may not be correct and eat food designed by people who want to maximize our consumption so we'll maximize their corporate profits?

The conclusion I've been coming to is that maybe it's not as simple as the nutrion "experts" would like to believe. You can't isolate one nutrient, making it the "magic pill of good health". Everything works together and what may seem like a bad thing can be a good thing in combination with the right other things. One example is a diet based on corn tortillas. You'd miss out on essential amino acids, if that were your main food. But the Mexicans have been eating that way healthfully for a very long time. How? They fill those tortillas with beans, which has the amino acids corn lacks. This is why I think the glycemic index thing is baloney. You don't eat high glycemic index foods in isolation. Who munches on raw onions, for Pete's sake? When you eat those foods with a little fat, it slows down the absorption of the glucose and that solves the problem with those foods. So, you're better off to put a bit of butter on that baked potato than to eat it plain.

That's probably why we've ended up with the patterns of eating we've developed over the course of human history. The problem with our current eating pattern is that it's not based on anything we've evolved to eat. Our caveman ancestor didn't hang out at the local fast-food joint, nor did he nuke a complete meal and eat it standing over the sink. That's why the current wisdom to eat lots of fruits and veggies, a little meat (Or not, if you choose. Apparently, we can do just fine without it.), and whole grains makes sense. That's what humans have been eating forever. So the challenge is finding those foods, at a price I can afford, and arranging my schedule to allow time to cook them. We've started to build a "food now" culture, so our lives get swamped and we don't take the time to cook or make the time to eat with our family and friends. But that's another post, one I think I already wrote.