food additives

The Price of Domestication

We were dogsitting this past week, and, whenever it came time to feed the critters, I would find myself philosophizing about the price of domestication: in exchange for a steady food supply, wolves/dogs gave up their freedoms. On the plus side, they wouldn't starve. On the minus side, every day they must eat the same bowl of kibbles. The kibbles have been pumped up with pleasing synthetic flavors and a smidge of actual meat by-product, but it's still a little bowl of kibbles, twice a day, day in and day out, getting more and more stale the longer the bag sits out.


It's a dog's life.

But I was also reading Kristin Lawless' Formerly Known as FoodHow the Industrial Food System is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture and discovering some uncomfortable parallels.


Like dogs being domesticated, we've made a deal of questionable benefits. In exchange for convenient, always-available food, we've handed over our ability to choose what we eat. Yes, some of us can afford to be choosier in our groceries, but it's gotten harder and harder to avoid that darned bowl of kibbles. The corn, soy, canola, synthetic flavors, emulsifiers, sweeteners, preservatives, pesticide residues, packaging plastics, oxidized fats, antibiotics, and so on, are everywhere. Buy organic all you like. You cannot escape.

Some days it's all too much, and you just want to stay in bed.

Some days it's all too much, and you just want to stay in bed.

The book makes for some grim reading. There are the usual alarming facts about rising obesity, metabolic syndrome, and allergies, which we've almost become inured to, but what was newer to me was the discussion of cumulative effects of pesticide and chemical build-ups in fields, foods, and oceans, as well as permanent changes to our microbiota caused by diet-induced extinction. Did you know that DDT, banned way back in 1979, is still found in the umbilical cord blood of newborn infants? Discouraging, to say the least. Or that TBT, an organic pollutant used in paints and coatings for boats back in the 1960s (and since banned), has nevertheless so leached into our waters and been biomagnified up the food chain, that we're eating it today. So what, you say? Well, TBT is an "obesogen," causing animals in studies to "have more and bigger fat cells...They're eating normal food, and they're getting fatter." As an added bonus, TBT-induced weight gain can be passed down generationally.

Fine, fine, you concede. There's nothing to be done about the DDT, but I just won't eat seafood. Oh, but TBT is just one kind of "organotin" we are exposed to. There are others,

used in the linings and sealings of food cans, in polyvinylchloride (PVC) plastics, as fungicides and pesticides on crops, as slimicides in industrial water systems, and as wood preservatives. Like many other classes of chemicals, organotins were wrongly deemed environmentally safe for many years -- and they appear to be everywhere in our environment.

And remember the BPA fuss? Because it messed with our hormones, public uproar got it removed from baby bottles and water bottles and such. Sad to say, the plastic compounds used as replacements still have endocrine-disrupting characteristics. Plastic in food and drink packaging is unavoidable nowadays. Buy organic all you like, and 90% of the time, it's still being delivered to you in plastic. 

Lawless makes a very compelling argument for breastfeeding but recognizes that women who have to work outside the home and who don't have the most understanding schedules or workplaces for pumping breast milk face impossible situations. In fact, Lawless points out relentlessly how economic and social class constrain food choice, from gestation onward. Some of us can't simply "choose" to breastfeed and buy organic and home-cook our meals:

When food movement leaders say the solutions are to eat whole foods and buy organic, they leave out the crucial fact that we need to collectively reject the production of poor-quality processed foods and stop the production of dangerous pesticides and other environmental chemicals that contaminate many foods. Critics do not often articulate this omission, but it is largely why the movement is perceived as elitist, and rightly so. If the food movement's solutions are market based and predicated on spending more for safer and healthier food, they ignore how impossible these solutions are for most Americans...The food movement has allowed these [crappy, processed] products and additives to exist alongside a cleaner and safer food supply for the privileged few.
Food movement leaders also emphasize the importance of home cooking and cooking whole foods from scratch. Yet many fail to mention that the majority of Americans do not have the time, money, or resources to cook meals from whole foods at home. And when these leaders do acknowledge that lack of time to cook is a problem, they usually address it through providing better ways to cook healthy foods quickly.

I plead guilty to all of these charges.

What solutions does Lawless suggest, if you haven't already succumbed to despair? I admit, I was paralyzed by her solutions. She called for some fairly reasonable measures, like longer paid leave for new moms and household-skills classes for all, but then ventured into suggestions that made my eyes widen: universal basic income, paying people to cook at home, shorter work weeks, and so on. I just didn't see where all the money would come from. Yes, I agree our health as a society would improve, but it's hard to fund programs based on "we'll save money later, years down the road."

I liked better her mentions of urban farming programs on unused land, which has been done successfully in places like Milwaukee and Detroit, although the thought of sending inexperienced college kids out to run them made me think of Chairman Mao sending out all the academics to do the national farming and finding that--whoa!--they didn't actually know how, and now everyone's gonna starve! I guess if this FoodCorps hired the kids who'd done 4-H and had a little experience, but that's a dwindling pool nowadays.

In any case, I highly recommend the book as an eye-opener. And, if you've got the time and money, invite someone over for a home-cooked meal of whole foods, cooked and served on glass and metal.

Skip the Additives and Roll Your Own Rolls

While I don't usually read books in the horror genre, it seems like all books nowadays on Big Food and Big Ag fall into that bucket. This time I'm 23% in to FORMERLY KNOWN AS FOOD: HOW THE INDUSTRIAL FOOD SYSTEM IS CHANGING OUR MINDS, BODIES, AND CULTURE. I'll have more to say on that next week, but in the meantime let me encourage us to skip one pre-bought item on the Easter menu for homemade, make-ahead goodness.

Rolls, anyone? If you need convincing that occasionally skipping the store's bread aisle isn't a bad idea, consider this Livestrong article on bread additives to avoid. It's a roll call of the usual suspects: dough "conditioners," emulsifiers, soy, sugar, trans fat, caramel coloring. All things you don't need to worry about if you make your own.

For our table this year I decided to make homemade crescent rolls, adapting a Good Housekeeping Cookbook recipe.


And when I say "adapting" baked good recipes, it usually means adding in some whole-wheat flour and subtracting some sugar. We haven't eaten them yet because I threw them in the freezer, but they smelled and looked wonderful. It says you need to start these 3.5 hours ahead of serving, but a lot of that time isn't hands-on because you're letting the dough rise or rest.

Crescent Dinner Rolls (makes one dozen)

2 Tbsp sugar
3/4 tsp salt
2.5 tsp yeast (or one packet)
about 2.5 cups total of all-purpose and whole-wheat flour (I used 1/2 c whole wheat)
1/2 cup milk
2 Tbsp butter
1 egg

In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients, using only 3/4 cup of the flour. In a small saucepan, heat the milk and butter until warm. (The butter doesn't need to melt all the way.)

With a mixer at low speed, gradually beat the liquids into the dry just until blended. Then increase mixer speed to medium and beat 2 minutes. Scrape down bowl. Beat in egg and 1/4 cup more flour to make a thick batter. Beat another 2 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally. Then add in another cup of the flour and mix with a wooden spoon.

Use the remaining flour to dust your surface repeatedly while kneading, so the dough doesn't stick. Dump out the dough and knead it about 10 minutes, or until smooth and elastic. Shape it into a ball and let rise in a greased bowl, covered by a dish towel, one hour.

Punch down dough and turn back onto dusted surface. Cover with dish towel again and let rest 15 minutes.

Roll dough into a 9-12" circle (you don't want it to be so thick you can't roll the wedges up). Use a pizza cutter to cut the circle into 16 evenly-sized wedges. Moisten the point of each wedge with melted butter. Then roll from the wide end to the point. Transfer to a greased cookie sheet, curving the ends of the crescent toward each other a little. Repeat. 

Let crescents rise 30 minutes while the oven preheats. Brush with egg glaze (one egg mixed with 1 Tbsp milk) or melted butter and bake at 400F for 10-15 minutes. They should be golden and spring back when lightly touched.

If you aren't eating them that day, let them cool completely and freeze them. To serve, let thaw on the counter and then eat at room temperature or warmed a little in the oven.

Happy Easter to all.

Haven't dyed eggs in years, but if I did, I'd want them to look thus. [Photo by  Annie Spratt  on  Unsplash ]

Haven't dyed eggs in years, but if I did, I'd want them to look thus. [Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash]

Gross Groceries Inaugural Post


Let's be honest: processed foods are having a rough time of it in the media, in science research, and basically everywhere except the national pocketbook.

Consider this little article posted just this morning on how mice fed emulsifiers "underwent changes in gut bacteria and inflammation of the gut – changes that led to obesity and diabetes in these animals." What are emulsifiers? Basically, they keep foods from separating and looking like salad dressing before you give it a good shake. lists the most common emulsifiers as "lecithins, mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids esters of monoglycerides of fatty acids and phosphated monoglycerides." Emulsifiers are in everything. That soy lecithin in your chocolate bar? Emulsifier. Monoglycerides in your ice cream? Emulsifier. The mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids in your peanut butter? Emulsifier.

Let's just hope this study proves to be an example of where the human gut and the mouse gut part ways.

Don't get me wrong. I love the convenience of processed foods as much as the next person. We eat breakfast cereal by the truckload in our house (if I had a time machine, I'd use my first trip back not to save the world but just to change the breakfast habits I ingrained in my children). I use frozen vegetables in a pinch. We have boxes of (organic) mac & cheese. We have tortilla chips and tortillas and unemulsified peanut butter and Tillamook cheese. We have canned tomato sauce and tomato paste. I am not going to grow and make everything we eat.

But there are processed foods and then there are processed foods. In honor of processed foods, I give you the inaugural post of Gross Groceries.

A trip to the grocery store holds wonderful surprises (running into a friend) and horrific ones. I know they have cameras watching us in the store, but I couldn't resist taking a picture, when I saw this new product on the endcap.

photo (1)

That right there would be soup in a pouch. A non-compostable, non-recyclable pouch, no less. Now, I confess--we buy exactly two cans of soup per year--the cream of mushroom to make green bean casserole. When my oldest daughter went out for her first babysitting job and was handed a can of soup to feed the kids, she looked so blank that the mom had to explain to her what to do with it. But at least canned soup comes in a responsible container! What the heck is this pouch? Is it meant to be a bota bag you squeeze into your mouth? Like--ugh--GoGurt?

Actually, the soup within the pouch isn't any worse than canned soup, I imagine. True Gross Groceries should both (1) cause your toes to curl when you see them and (2) make you wince when you eat them. Probably the original Gross Grocery item is the one my twelve-year-old daughter still begs for, though I've never bought it.

photo (3)

Adding sugar and vibrant, unnatural color seems to be the surefire way to sell anything to kids. Like these two Pop Tart varieties:



photo (4)

But it's almost too easy to find Gross Groceries in aisles that target children, so I'll end with this treasure for all ages:

photo (2)

On the plus side, they're mostly corn chips fried in vegetable oil. After that, things head downhill pretty fast. We're talking MSG, artificial colors, four other processed corn products, synthetic flavors, and preservatives. Well, at least nothing needed emulsifying.


Full Speed Ahead with Caffeine



Wouldn't you know it--my family is on Midwinter Break this week, so this post is being composed on my ancient iPhone. Please forgive typos, weird formatting and general nonsensicalness! But on our long flights I did manage to finish the fascinating book pictures above. I remember when my sister was in college she had a textbook called LICIT DRUGS, of which caffeine was the prime example. Whether you're a daily coffee drinker, tea Fri ker, or a regular fan of one of the top ten sodas in the country, odds are you have a caffeine addiction.

A soda might contain 1/64th teaspoon of caffeine (a bitter white powder), a 12-ounce coffee has about 1/16th teaspoon, and a dose of 1 tablespoon would be lethal! (Don't worry--that's about 50 cups of coffee or 200 cups of tea.)

Caffeine can be culled from many plant sources around the world, and no matter how we take it--through a beverage habit or by chewing kola nuts or downing chocolate, studies have found we are as good as lab rats in self-medicating. We ingest until we get our usual dosage.

Why caffeine? It suppresses our sleepiness receptors, improves reaction time and mental acuity and even makes us more sociable. Only a small percentage of folks suffer adverse effects, and we can tell when we've gone over our proper daily dosage.

The author journeys around the world and through history to investigate chocolate, soft drinks, coffee, tea, energy drinks and sports gels, and even caffeinated chewing gums!

A couple fun takeaways:
-- caffeine in your tea increases, the longer you let it steep.
--Coffee consumption in the U.S. dropped after WWII, and the you get generation prefers energy drinks.
--Most caffeine nowadays is produced synthetically in China.
-- coffee drinkers suffer less from depression ! However, caffeine does promote insulin resistance.
--Children ages 4-12 should not have more than 45-85mg caffeine daily(!!!!). Of course, if you're the crazy kind of parent giving your kids any caffeine at all, you have more late-night stamina than I ever will.

Anyhow, if, like most Americans, you're a certified caffeine addict, I recommend this read! Please enjoy the pics that follow because I can't format them within the text over my phone...

Awesome pic from the Coca-Cola Company website!
[Courtesy the Starbucks website]
"Dude. This guy wants to try our chocolate." [Pic from]