Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Yes, I'm the Woman Judging Your Purchases in the Grocery Line

Okay, so I challenged everyone to guess the three products whose ingredients I posted (ahem) SEVERAL weeks ago and promised I would reveal them the following week. However, I got busy writing something else instead. You get what you pay for.

I know how many of you visit this site (and where you reside...a big welcome to visitors from Australia and Indonesia), and yet no one wagered a guess. I imagine it was easy enough to surmise that one was a savory product and the other two were sweet, but, other than that, there aren't a lot of clues regarding the nature of the products in the ingredients lists. They are as follows:

1. "devil's food cake" mix,
2. "milk chocolate" icing,
3. a packet of "brown gravy" mix.

I put the food names in quotation marks because one cannot call any of these items real food. Having looked at recipes for the first product, I gotta say that I don't see the necessity of buying it "pre-made." There aren't a whole lot of ingredients in the homemade version. But let's suppose you work 40 hours a week (as I do) and want your evenings and weekends relatively free (as we all do). In a few minutes, you could mix the following ingredients together, put them in a sealable, re-usable container, and put them in the freezer (yes, I'm assuming a lot by assuming you have a could keep it in the cupboard, just be aware that whole wheat flour goes rancid in high temps). You could even double or triple the batch for more cake later.

Healthier Devil's Food Cake PreMix
In one bag, mix together:
1 cup brown cane sugar
3/4 cup cane sugar

In another bag, mix together:
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat cake flour (yes, there is such a thing)
1 cup unsweetened baking cocoa
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

Now, when you're ready to bake a cake, pull your two bags out of the freezer.

Remember the French saying, "mise en place" and get the following ingredients on the counter. Next to your mixing bowl:

1 1/2 sticks organic butter
4 large organic free-range eggs (if you can, look for someone who sells eggs from chickens who roam around eating insects all day)

Cream 1 1/2 sticks of softened organic butter with the sugars. Add four eggs to this mixture one at a time, beating well. Then add the rest of the mix. Stir a few times (just enough to get everything mixed). Pour half into two 8-inch cake pans. Bake 30-35 minutes.

You're done...well, unless you want icing on your cake, but there are a million recipes for it online, and it too is fairly easy to make.

Now, I also said I would explain how I came up with the total calories for the meal. If you'll recall, that was 1208 in toto. A serving of cake with icing and a serving of the brown gravy add up to 435 calories. I figured the brown gravy was probably for a pot roast; that's 334 calories for a single serving of beef. I also assumed that mashed potatoes were one of the most likely side dishes. That's another 237 calories. There would be at least one other side dish in the meal: how about green beans cooked down with a slice of bacon and some onion for 90 calories? Then add a King's Hawaiian sweet roll for 180 calories, and it actually comes out to more than 1208 calories. I picked King's because I see their rolls everywhere, so I'm guessing a lot of people eat them around here. A meat and two, plus bread and dessert seems like a fairly typical American meal to me. Unless you're at my house.

First, I became pescatarian (more or less) about two months ago (except for Sundays when the Holy Eucharist comes in the form of bacon and champagne...and unlimited opportunities for receiving the body and the Cathedral of St. Michelangelo on Toad Suck Square in good ol' Conwag). I did this for a lot of reasons: my health and the need to economize (my husband goes fishing seven kidding...a week). But mainly I did it because I want to eliminate my relationship with the corporate food industry. I can't live with the moral questions raised by eating meat that comes from animals I know were inhumanely slaughtered by humans working in inhumane conditions. Not only that, the two main backbones of the convenience-food industry are GM soybeans and GM corn. I can't bring myself to support an industry (*cough* Monsanto) that lies about its mission, which isn't to feed a projected 9 billion people in the future. Their true mission is what they tell their shareholders: to make money. And GM corn is what they feed to animals that did not evolve to eat it. And I want to ask, how well will Monsanto be feeding the world given the drought most of the country is in right now? Genetically modified corn might tolerate Round Up, but it can't withstand Mother Nature any better than a regular crop.

Second, I'm picky. I don't like sweets, so the Western version of breakfast doesn't generally cut it. I often do as the Japanese and Koreans and eat the same things I eat for lunch and dinner: a bowl of soup, some tuna from a can, a little scattered sushi, some steamed vegetables. Except for the tuna (which I take no credit for), everything is made on Sunday. If I need something really quick, I make a single serving of organic popcorn and eat an apple or frozen berries. All things that, when they come out of their packages, are identifiable as food.

So, yes, I'm the one behind you in the supermarket watching every single item you put on the conveyor. But I'm not really judging you. I'm judging what corporations have done to our food system...eliminating the small butcher shop, the bakery store, the corner market in every neighborhood that you could walk to when you forgot the milk and eggs. I don't want you to buy the ground beef. I don't want you to buy it because it's bad for you, the environment, the animals sacrificed for it, and the economy of the middle class. I don't want you to buy the Healthy Choice cookies and Lean Cuisine entree because, despite all marketing implications to the contrary, they will not make you thin. I don't want you to buy convenience foods like brown gravy packets, cake mix, and ready-made icing because they will eventually lead you to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

That being said, would anyone like a free box of cake mix with a package of icing and a brown gravy packet? Anyone?

Photo credit: Patrick Hoesly via Creative Commons Attribution License. Some Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Guess the Product, or How I Learned to Love Pigweed

I guess in the past two years I've become something of a Food Nazi...for good reason. I've read Fast Food Nation and Twinkie Deconstructed. I've watched Supersize Me; Food, Inc.; and The Corporation. And there's only one conclusion I'm able to draw: We're being a broken food chain (which we broke), a culture of convenience, and the greed of giant conglomerates that seem to be run by some inhuman(e) force. Whether it's in the form of e. coli, salmonella, or some other food-born pathogen or by toxic ingredients or methods of food production, poison is poison just like "a rose by any other name."

So after The Hubs and I got back from the grocery Sunday and I found a bag full of unlikely purchases, I was a little aghast. Apparently, we had accidentally picked up someone else's stuff. On the one hand, I feel a little guilty that they paid for something they didn't receive. On the other hand, no one should eat these things. See if you can guess what they are (no cheating by Googling them!):

Number One
Enriched and bleached flour, sugar, cocoa processed with alkali, corn syrup, leavening, corn starch, modified corn starch, partially hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oil, carob powder, propylene glycol, mono and diesters of fatty acids, distilled monglycerides, salt, dicalcium phosphate, sodium stearyl lactylate, xanthan gum, cellulose gum, artificial flavor.

Number Two
Sugar, water, partially hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oils, corn syrup, coca processed with alkili, corn starch, salt, mono and diglycerides, polysorbate 60, modified corn starch, citric acid, potassium sorbate, artificial color, soy lecithin.

Number Three
Enriched wheat flour, wheat starch, salt, beef fat, hydrolized soy protein, onion, caramel color, corn syrup solids, sodium caseinate, spices, garlic, natural flavor, disodium inosinate and guanylate, extractives of paprika, and yeast extract.

In exchange for the 435 calories, 31% of your day's recommended intake of fat, and 32% of your day's recommended intake of sodium per what the manufacturers consider a serving if you ate all three in a single meal, you get 16% of your recommended daily intake of iron and 8% of your calcium. So, virtually nothing.

And that's not even the whole meal. I'm guessing that the person who was thwarted in her/his attempt to buy these products probably eats from a lot of boxes. So I estimate, judging from processed food websites, that another 800 calories would go into the meal for a total of 1208 calories, and I tried to be modest in my assessment, choosing components of the meal that made sense to me based on cooking magazines and sticking to the serving sizes suggested by the company websites.

Now, for those of my audience who don't know me personally, I never touch anything that tastes remotely sweet (it's the reason I don't eat bread...too sweet), yet as far as your health and the health of the environment is concerned, sugar is the most innocuous ingredient in the lists above. However, at 39 grams of the stuff (the government has not established a recommended daily allowance for sugars), that's 156 empty calories, so I'm not advocating the liberal consumption of sweet stuff, especially if it's in the form of high fructose corn syrup for reasons I'll outline below.

4Backstory. The first time my parents allowed me to stay home alone was a Saturday when I was twelve and an apparent moron. They went antique shopping; I went on a Pepsi and candy bar binge. I remember that I drank twelve soda pops in the 16 oz bottles (yep, they came in glass back then, kids). I remember because I was pretty proud of having downed two six packs of Pepsi. I don't remember how many candy bars I ate, enough that at some point, my stomach revolted, and I was still barfing when my folks came home around supper time. My mom literally sent me to bed without any dinner...probably more to end the puking than out of anger. At any rate, that episode cured me of my sweet tooth. I switched to carrot and celery sticks. Oh, and apples. In fact, one time I ate 14 Johnnie apples in one day, and I was pretty proud of myself. Until I started throwing them all up...kind of like bobbing for apples in reverse. Yes, I might have OCD. No, I'm not a big fan of apples anymore, either. 3End backstory.

The four ingredients that are the worst in the product lists, in my opinion, are the flour, the soy (all the different forms of it, including soy lecithin), the cottonseed oil, and the corn (all the different forms of it, probably including the monoglycerides). Here's why.

Enriched white flour is pure starch and nothing else...until the millers add back all the vitamins they stripped out of the flour in the first place, which seems like a monumentally inefficient system. So you might be getting the same vitamins, but you're not getting any fiber (which helps you to poo, it's true). Worse, Americans consume far too much of this starch in pasta, bread, stuffing, cereal, cookies, etc., etc. Think about what grocers call "The Prison" section of the store (so-called because if you put a few carts and a 3-D display in the aisle, you're probably not going to get out alive or without making at least one impulse purchase). Most of what's contained in it are boxes, cans, and jars containing white flour. ("Jars don't contain anything with white flour in it," you say? How about Manischewitz matzo ball soup?)

Convenience foods.

I see flour as an important cause of our rising obesity rate, which, yes, is an incredibly complex phenomenon, and flour alone is not the culprit. But it didn't help that the USDA advocated 6-11 servings of grain-based foods a day in the outdated Food Pyramid. If I tried to eat grains to the exclusion of everything else, I still wouldn't be able to consume that outrageous amount every single day, and I'd probably lose all my teeth from malnutrition if I tried. Not to mention the fact that the encouragement to eat whole grains over the processed stuff that comes in your box of Fruit Loops was in pretty damned fine print. Also not mentioned on the Pyramid is the fact that there is fiber in beans, fruits, and vegetables as well as more vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. See, there is a Big Grain (think Archer Daniels Midland), but there is no Big Bean, Fruit, and Vegetable because the producers of onions, strawberries, and butter beans, etc. are largely independent (or worse, located in other countries which increases the carbon footprint of their produce). Big Grain has a big lobby, so they got a huge piece of the Pyramid pie where fruits and vegetables get less than half the space. And beans are inexplicably lumped in with meat. Beans contain virtually no fat, are practically free if you buy them dried, and they're damned filling. But my government is going to sit there and tell me I should be careful and not eat too much of them? That's just stupid. But it goes to show what happens when your crop doesn't have a lobby to advocate for it with the USDA (US Department of Asshattery).

We can lump soy, cottonseed oil, and corn all into the same group because, in my opinion, they're bad for you and the environment for the same reasons. Monsanto* started out as a seed company, switched to the chemical business, and then became a chemical and seed company. Some scientists who work for them got the idea to develop an herbicide from a chemical called glyphosate (far more environmentally friendly than atrazine, previously one of the more common herbicides, I freely admit). Then, they took their profits a step further by genetically modifying soybean, cotton, corn, and canola seeds. In the case of soybeans, for example, they splice the bean's genes (tee hee) with some genes from a bacterium that produces an enzyme that makes the plants invulnerable to glyphosate; hence, "weeds" die, crops don't. (N.B.: It's supposed to be a single gene, but my understanding is that it's impossible to remove the one gene without also removing a couple of others and these have become a part of the genetic material of the modified seeds. If I'm wrong on this count, you may leave a message in the comments with a correction. I point it out for informational purposes only.) And here's the deal: 94% of all soybeans, 73% of all cottonseed, and 72% of all corn (excepting sweet corn, which is a tiny crop in comparison to the stuff you see driving on the freeway) comes from genetically modified seed.

In an ironic twist, "weeds" have proven that natural hybridization can happen as quickly and efficiently as the brilliant scientists who work for the aforementioned company can come up with new ways to genetically and recklessly alter life. In other words, the "weeds" glyphosate is supposed to combat are quickly becoming resistant to it, to the point that 12 million acres1 of U.S. cropland is overrun by Monster "Weeds." In the south it's pigweed, an edible, highly nutritious plant (which is why "weeds" is in quotation marks: one woman's "weed" is another woman's salad). The result of these Monster "Weeds" arriving on the scene is that farmers are either using more and more glyphosate on their GM crops or are applying atrazine as well as glyphosate.

Let's break it down: "herb," from the Latin herba meaning "grass" or "herb"; "-cide" from the Latin cidium, a form of the verb caedere meaning "to kill." These are poisons. Both the aforementioned company and the EPA have maintained that the product does not cause any harm to humans or animals, but the evidence is mounting that, in fact, it does2.

4Sidenote. Linda J. Fisher, who was president of Monsanto from 1995-2000, worked as an adiminstrator of the EPA under George W. Bush. She is now a vice president of DuPont. Just thought I'd throw that in there. 3End sidenote.

There is the possibility that glyphosate is responsible for a wide number of negative effects ranging from birth defects to dilation of the heart. And it is definitely toxic to aquatic life, which is why products containing it state on their labels that you should not pour your leftover herbicide down the drain. And if you think that rinsing these crops with water removes the herbicide, you are mistaken. Research has shown that the majority of chemicals applied to fruits and vegetables remain...even after washing them with a produce detergent3. (You should still rinse your produce because it IS effective at removing pathogens.) For these reasons, it seems to me that more application of glyphosate is not a good thing. Any application of atrazine is definitely not a good thing. And if the Monster "Weeds" continue taking over cropland, countries around the globe that depend on the U.S. for much of their food supply could be looking famine straight in it's skinny little face. Starving to death is not very good for anyone's health.

So I challenge you. Guess the products if you can. More importantly, vote with your dollars. Stop buying over-processed food with ingredients whose name you can't pronounce. Grill a bunch of vegetables and a lean meat for dinner; have cut up fruit for dessert. Better yet, go pescetarian, vegetarian, or flexitarian (someone who eats meat only occasionally). Make it a game to figure out how to transform a food you generally don't have time to make into a "from-scratch convenience" food. Love blueberry pancakes? Triple the batter, divide it up, and throw what you don't eat into the freezer. Try to buy as many organic products as you can afford. If not, you'd better start looking up recipes for pigweed because you may be eating a lot of it in the near least here in the sunny South.

I'll reveal the products and the imaginary meal I conjured up for the 1208 calorie dinner next Wednesday along with some suggestions for substituting "from-scratch convenience" foods. Oh, and pigweed. I'll have a recipe for pigweed...which will get you through the glyphosate catastrophe and the zombie apocalypse.

*The company in question has a nasty habit of sending cease and desist letters to anyone who might exercise her first amendment right to express a negative opinion of said company. All views expressed here are opinion only.