The real taste of food

I found this New York Times article article about the "bad rap" of high fructose corn syrup, aka HFCS, very interesting. Before I proceed though, here are two other opinions you may want to read:

  • Kate at Accidental Hedonist sticks to her conviction that a highly government subsidized product (HFCS) is significantly responsible for the rise in obesity in the U.S.
  • Barbara of Tigers and Strawberries sort of concurs, saying that the American consumer can't be totally blamed for the high consumption of HFCS, since it's in so many products that you wouldn't expect it to be in, though she doesn't totally absolve said consumers of blame.

Soda and sugary drinks are very popular in Europe, though maybe people don't drink it in lieu of water as much as people do in the U.S. The soda that's manufactured here isn't always sweetened with HFCS though. The most common industrial sweetener in France, Germany and Switzerland made from sugar beets, the production of which is heavily subsidized. Swiss farmers receive almost as much per kilo for the sugar beets they produce as they sell it for. While there may be some question as to how 'naturally' produced a certain type of sugar is, I think that our bodies react to simple carbohydrates in much the same way. I'm not a nutritionist, but everything I've read leads me to conclude that, while honey and "raw" cane sugars may taste nice, nutritionally they aren't that different from the sugar produced from sugar beets or corn.

The main issue really is the amount of processed foods that one eats. There's a fascinating book called The Hungry Planet, which I reviewed a few months ago. Its simple premise it to photograph ordinary families around the world with a week's worth of the food they buy. As you might expect, the American family ate a lot of processed food, as did the British family. The one that was most striking to me though was the Mexican family, who despite not being very well off managed to go through gallons of Coca-cola every week. Clearly they were addicted to it.

Our modern taste buds have gotten more and more blasé, as we consume more processed foods. Is that our fault, or the fault of the corporations who sell, sell sell us the idea that their foods are so good? Perhaps partially. As the Times article confirms, those food manufacturers will try just about any marketing tactic to convince us to eat their foods.

Regardless of where the blame lies, the damage has been done. Try this once: get a bag of supermarket potato chips, and put one in your mouth. Mmm, yummy. But what do you taste? Potato? Or salt, fat and perhaps some mystery flavorings, on a vaguely potatoey crispy surface? I think that we can get addicted to food with a lot of sugar, salt, and/or fat - and many of us are, including myself. (I have a weakness for - you guessed it - potato chips.) There aren't too many things in the world of food choices that I'm totally sure of one way or another, but I do believe that buying any kind of pre-processed, pre-packaged food is a bit of a hazard.

One defense we have against that is to read the labels of food we buy, so we know what's in there. But, the biggest defense we have is to cook our own food, from raw ingredients with simple labels, and getting used to the real taste of unprocessed food is a good thing too. I know, that's all easier said than done, but frankly I'd much rather spend time cooking ingredients that I'm comfortable with than spending my time standing around supermarkets squinting at ingredient lists. And if i'm going to really blow the calories, I'd rather do it on something really worth it.

Give a shot at this experiment: make a green salad, but don't dump on any dressing, oil, vinegar or seasonings. Now try eating the leaves, as-is. You may find it very bland at first, but then you will start to experience what a lettuce leaf or a mizuna or whatever you're having really tastes like. Now try adding a bit of lemon juice maybe, and a drizzle of olive oil. Taste again. Add a bit of pepper and salt of you really, really miss it, but go very slowly. At some point you may find you'll strike a perfect balance between dressing and vegetable - and chances are, you would have used a lot less oil, salt, etc. than you normally would have just put on mindlessly.

You may never resort to Ranch Style Dressing from a bottle again.

Note: I'm off to New York in the morning for a business trip. And speaking of packaged foods...I plan to attend the Fancy Food show at the Javits Center this weekend, if time allows. I will report back of course if I can make it there. I see they have a whole section devoted to 'natural and organic foods', for one thing. Should be interesting!

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The best round-up of information on the causes of American obesity and cardiovascular disease can, in my view, be found at this blog:

I remember the first time I ate potato chips after not having eaten them in maybe...2 years:

"Oh my god, it's CRACK."

Anyway, I shouldn't be allowed to eat potato chips. So. Tasty. I'd eat plain potatoes too. Or plain rice. Mm.

I don't feel like the body treats all sugars the same way, but I don't have any deep scientific knowledge about it. It's...just how I feel. A few years ago I'd eat raw honey plain out of the jar (and receive some strange looks from my friends in the process). I wouldn't necessarily recommend that other people do that...unless they don't have much else to eat, which was my case.

I love Hungry Planet! Luckily it was required in one of my classes or else I wouldn't have known about it. I'd recommend "The Omnivore's Dilemma" if you haven't read it.

I sort of read (well, actually listened to the audio book) of The Omnivore's Dilemma. It didn't have that much info that I didn't know about, but the fact that it's become a very much discussed book is almost more interesting than the book itself.

It sort of makes me wonder how an oldie like Diet For A Small Planet would have fared in the current gazillion-people-blogging-about-food situation!

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