I want food, not chemistry experiments

If someone handed you a container of thiamine mononitrate, would you scoop some out and take a bite? How about calcium propionate or potassium iodate? Monocalcium phosphate? How about riboflavin or folic acid?

Those things sound like the ingredients for a high school chemistry class experiment.

And I just ate them for lunch.

The ingredients listed above did not come from a chemistry workbook. I copied them off the bag containing my white sandwich bread. For what it's worth, here's the full ingredient list:
Enriched wheat flour (flour, malted barley flour, reduced iron, niacin, thiamine mononitrate [vitamin B1], riboflavin [vitamin B2], folic acid), water, high fructose corn syrup, yeast, soybean oil, salt, calcium propionate (preservative), monoglycerides, datem, calcium sulfate, soy lecithin, citric acid, grain vinegar, wheat gluten, potassium iodate, mono calcium phosphate, cornstarch.

Pretty sure there are fewer ingredients in gunpowder.

I point this out because I recently made the fortunate mistake of reading the book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan (I also watched the Netflix documentary with the same name which isn't as good as the book, but still pretty good). Now I'm going around reading the labels on all the items in my cabinets. If it would ever stop raining, I'd go till up my garden because, dammit, my family deserves real food!

It's probably worth taking a moment here to acknowledge my bad habit of reacting irrationally to influential books that I read. After reading the novel One Second After by William R. Forstchen, I spent a week organizing survival kits and storing canned goods. I may have a problem.

So this too will probably pass, but it's front-of-mind now so I'm going to run with it.

The main premise of the book is this: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." For more background, I'll just defer to the summary from the Amazon description of the book:
Humans used to know how to eat well, Pollan argues. But the balanced dietary lessons that were once passed down through generations have been confused, complicated, and distorted by food industry marketers, nutritional scientists, and journalists-all of whom have much to gain from our dietary confusion. As a result, we face today a complex culinary landscape dense with bad advice and foods that are not "real." These "edible foodlike substances" are often packaged with labels bearing health claims that are typically false or misleading. Indeed, real food is fast disappearing from the marketplace, to be replaced by "nutrients," and plain old eating by an obsession with nutrition that is, paradoxically, ruining our health, not to mention our meals. Michael Pollan's sensible and decidedly counterintuitive advice is: "Don't eat anything that your great-great grandmother would not recognize as food."
Think about it. What do you really know about eating well? Probably what comes to mind is a dichotomous "eat this, but not that" line of thinking based not on types of foods, but on particular nutrients. Trans fat versus saturated fat. Good cholesterol vs. bad cholesterol. Carbs. Fiber. Sodium. Protein.

Blah blah blah.

And just about the time you think you have it figured out, some brainiac from some industry or agency suggests otherwise. Eggs are good (remember "the Incredible, Edible Egg" slogan?). No, eggs are bad because they raise cholesterol. No, they're good because of the protein. Wait, do they contain the good or bad cholesterol? Which one was which again?

What were we talking about? Oh, eff it. Give me some bacon with a side of bacon. And a 55 gallon barrel of Diet Coke. Because I care about my health.


The overall point here is that so much of what we now call "food" is little more than chemistry experiments with various compounds and nutrients on an industrial scale. And for as much as we think we know about nutrition, we're a long way from fully understanding the big picture. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.

For example, try as we may, we cannot manufacture a tomato. We can isolate the nutrients we know it contains, mix them all together and still not derive the same nutritional benefit that consuming an actual tomato provides.

Yet that seems to be exactly what we're trying to do by mixing a dozen or more compounds together to make what looks like bread. And despite all our research and best efforts into the science of nutrition, Americans - and those that regularly consume what Pollan calls the "Western Diet" - are some of the unhealthiest people on the planet (Pollan discusses some rather profound studies of exposing indigenous tribes to our food culture and how it affected their health - spoiler alert: it wasn't good).

Thus the main theme of the book: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

"Eat food" means to opt for eating that which you, or someone from a few generations ago, would recognize as actual food. Or as I've said to pretty much anyone who will listen: look for foods that don't contain ingredients the raw form of which you'd hesitate to eat if given a container of it. I don't know what, if anything, all the processing and added ingredients does to our health but to me it just makes sense that food in it's more natural, pure form would logically be better for us.

"Not too much" is pretty obvious. And logical. We tend to eat large portions, quickly and on-the-go. Our measure of being "done" eating is when there's no more product left in the container or on the plate. But other (and healthier) cultures don't eat that way. They eat slower and quit eating when they're full. Notably, the book points out that it takes a while for our brains to register the "full" feeling. Our "fast" food culture largely bypasses that mechanism, allowing us to eat way more than we should. Hence the obesity "epidemic" we're facing.

"Mostly plants" is not, as you might presume, an admonition to go vegetarian, though there is some interesting data indicating low-meat or no-meat diets do result in healthier, longer lives. But heck with that, I want my steak! The point Pollan makes is that eating meat isn't in itself that bad, it's when the amount of meat we consume replaces enough of our plant consumption that we see detrimental health effects. So have your steak. Just not for every meal and make sure to balance your plate with other plant-based items as well (potatoes and sautéed brocolli and cauliflower, anyone?)

Read the book or watch the documentary. I thought there were a lot of valid, logical points that are at least worth considering. The way I see it, if replacing some ingredients I can't pronounce with some that I can grow in my garden reduces my chance of keeling over from a heart attack, or my kid's chances of getting fat and developing diabetes, then it's probably at least worth a shot.

Plus, whatever garden products I don't eat, I could can and store in my survival bunker...along with all the books I really should stop reading.