processed foods

You Put What in Your Mouth?

Just yesterday, my thirteen-year-old, who has been my Bellevue Farmer Market shopping partner since she was teeny-tiny, asked, “Can we buy some maraschino cherries?”

Ye olde Wikipedia maraschino cherry

Ye olde Wikipedia maraschino cherry

Bad timing on her part. Not only was I driving, but I’d just that day read a book about the ingredients in our foods, in which was a section on those wretched “cherry cordial” candies, where you bite hopefully into a lump of chocolate, only to have it ooze out a tablespoon of cloying goo and a maraschino cherry. Ugh. Has anyone ever found that a pleasant surprise?

“Maraschino cherries are fake!” I cried. “They’re pumped full of sugar and dye!”

“But they taste good.” (This interchange is only a sample of why I now, with three teenagers in the house, consider myself an utter parenting failure and have set fire to any manuscripts of parenting books I was drafting.)

According to This is What You Just Put in Your Mouth, a compilation of columns with the same name from Wired Magazine, maraschino cherries are generally Michigan cherries pumped full of Red Dye #40 (petroleum-derived), sulfur dioxide (to prevent browning), and two types of corn syrup.

I: “I’ll buy real cherries.”

13YO: “But you never do!”

I: (Sputtering in the face of this outright lie) “I buy them when they’re in season!”

So you see, not only have I failed to impart a delight in fresh, whole foods, but somehow seasonality has totally escaped my children as well. Even though (apart from apples and pears brought out of cold storage) I never buy out-of-season fruit at the store. Alas.

In any case, if you’re still a hold-out for fresh, whole, seasonal food that isn’t highly processed, you may like indulging in Schadenfreude by reading this book.


Di Justo collects his fun, interesting findings and delivers them with humor. For example, who knew that it wasn't just your (disgusted) brain telling you wet dog food was stinky? Because dogs are scavengers and love the smell of freshly dead carrion, one of the "natural flavors" added to canned food is sort of “Death-y.” Or did you know that Beano's active ingredient breaks up the gas-inducing culprit raffinose into simpler galactose and sucrose molecules--you digest without the “music,” but you're getting about four extra grams of carbs for every hundred grams you eat.

If you’re a food reader, you may have already known that real cheesemakers wanted the canned stuff labeled as "embalmed cheese" because of its sodium phosphate (embalming fluid) component, but did you also know that locust bean gum was used by ancient Egyptians to keep those mummy wrappings nice and tight?

Some foods tend to be not as awful as I would’ve imagined. Take Slim Jim “meat sticks,” for example. Really just salami-like material. So, if salami doesn’t gross you out, neither will a Slim Jim. Nor was I dismayed by sugarless gum and the thought of chewing tree sap that also gets used in tires(!!!) because who cares? People have been doing it for thousands of years.

The author ventures outside the food aisles as well, into such mysteries as hair dye and Rain-X and fabric softener. The fabric softener was an eye-opener—the secret ingredient being animal fat, to give our laundry that soft, silky feeling. Mmmm…

All in all, the book made for a quick, fun read, and if you never pick it up, I’ll just leave you with this tip: if you’re scheduled for a cranial MRI, skip the mascara. That thing won’t know if you have luscious lashes anyhow, and the metal in your mascara can throw off the readings! Who knew?

Hot Off the Skillet - April's Food News


Food news in this post:

  • World obesity rates continue to rise.
  • How much of your daily food intake is "ultra-processed"?
  • Droughts aren't all bad.
  • Eat like it's 1939!
  • Want to lose weight? Here's what you should listen to.


Obesity is no longer just an American phenomenon, or even a Western one. The NCD-Risc, a network of health scientists studying risk factors for non-communicable diseases, has found that one in seven women and one in nine men are now obese. Worldwide. The only places remaining with significant numbers of underweight folks are India and Bangladesh. Astonishing figures, so to speak, and ones that show no signs of slowing.

The team predicted if these global trends continue, by 2025 18% of the world’s men and 21% of women will be obese. Furthermore, the probability of reaching the World Health Organization global obesity target (which aims for no rise in obesity above 2010 levels by 2025) will be close to zero.

As obesity has been linked to a variety of health problems, including diabetes and metabolic syndrome, associated worldwide health costs will soar right along with our weight. Their recommendations? Eating more fruits and vegetables (duh), but also possibly "taxing high sugar and highly processed foods." Wouldn't that be an interesting world, if the good stuff was subsidized and the bad stuff taxed? For more details, here's the longer article.

Speaking of processed foods, Mental Floss reports that almost 60% of the typical American diet is "ultra-processed," including goodies like "sodas, packaged snacks and baked goods, candy and desserts, instant noodles and soups, and frozen meat products like chicken and fish nuggets." The percentage seems high, but I'm betting in our house we at least hit 25%, between breakfast cereal, ice cream, and cold cuts. Yikes.

On the upside, when you do get around to eating those expensive fruits and vegetables, consider finding drought-stunted survivors, for their bigger nutritional punch. (This is why my husband under-waters his tomatoes--to increase their flavor and meat density.) Plants that are fighting for survival pack their fruits with antioxidants. Check out this fascinating article on the topic from KQED (a Bay Area station). We've been so fortunate to hit that Ferry Building farmers market in San Francisco on our summer visits, and they do have good stuff.

Before widespread irrigation, the produce might have had more flavor and nutritional value, but that didn't mean we couldn't still find ways to make weird food. The American History Museum of the Smithsonian has been posting about American cooking in various decades, based on cookbooks of each era. Just look at the pictures from the article on the 1930s! The question isn't "how did 'congealed salads' ever go out of style?' but rather, "and we complain about kale salads?" The series continues into the 1940s, with recipes to stretch wartime rations. The magic bullet? Gelatin. Still gelatin. Good source of protein, after all, if you're not vegetarian.

And finally, if cooking from 1930s and 1940s cookbooks doesn't help you lose weight by diminishing your appetite, a new study shows that listening to chewing sounds makes you eat less. Yep. Sit next to that guy in the theater crunching popcorn or by the vending machine where people crunch potato chips, and your body might be fooled into thinking you're actually taking part. I don't know if I believe this one, but if it's true...goodbye, audiobooks, hello Soundtracks of Crunching, Munching & Chewing?


Victorian Fast Food


For a school assignment, my high school junior recently had me get a copy of Fast Food Nation, Morgan Spurlock's account of putting himself on a fast-food diet and checking out the results.

If you happened to miss the book and the subsequent movie, here is the summary (spoiler alert!): fast food turns out to be not so good for you.

No big surprises there, but all the persuasive books in the world can't prevent my occasional cravings. We went to a potluck wedding a month ago, and what did I lunge for? The bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, naturally. Hey--I get homemade food all the time, but sometimes you just want the Colonel's eleven herbs and spices. And if French fries appear in a three-foot radius of me, watch out.

Not having the time, inclination, skills, or equipment necessary to cook your own food isn't a new problem, it turns out. Or, at least, it isn't a problem that only developed in the '60s and '70s, when women left the homefront and entered the workforce. Fast food, it seems, began as a Victorian phenomenon.

As a major 19th century British literature fan, this was a fascinating read. And, as a food obsessive, the chapter "Feeding the Streets" was doubly interesting. Why exactly did David Copperfield go into a pub and get a pint of ale for breakfast? Well, when the options are crappy, untreated water or ale or beer made from boiled water, go for the ale or beer. It's not fresh-squeezed o.j., but at least it won't give you cholera.

Victorian London was teeming with people, people, and more people, jammed and crammed in dicey neighborhoods (most without kitchen access), and all those folks needed food. From early morning when everyone walked to work or waited in omnibus-clogged traffic jams, to late at night after the theaters got out, fast food could be found on the streets.

In the mornings there were pastrycooks offering penny loaves of bread or slices of "pudding" (like a bread pudding). Consider this recipe cadged from Recipes Past and Present:

Bachelor’s Pudding

  • Four ounces of flour
  • Four ounces of raisins
  • Four ounces of suet
  • Four ounces of Demerara sugar
  • Four ounces of breadcrumbs
  • Two ounces of butter
  • Two eggs
  • Half a teaspoonful of baking powder
  • Half a teaspoonful of ground ginger
  • A little milk

Method; Rub the butter into the flour, mince the suet, stone and divide the raisins, mix all together, add the sugar, breadcrumbs, baking powder, ginger, eggs [beaten] and milk, mix thoroughly. Butter well a mould; entirely cover the inside with brown sugar, pour in the mixture, cover with buttered paper and steam for two hours. Note to make the pudding less rich leave out the butter.

If it's got suet, you know it's gotta be good.

Street-sellers sold coffee, shellfish, meat, hot potatoes. A favorite offering was hot eels, "which were cheap and, because of their gelatinous consistency, filling." Then there were the cheap oysters, four for a penny, "opened, vinegared and peppered."

And, of course, there were the muffin men (as in, "Do you know the etc.") and the pie men. Not being generally tempted by eels and oysters, I would have hung around the pie man's stall, but, then as now, people were known to cut corners and scrimp on costs and quality ingredients in their processed foods:

To maintain their price at the expected penny, the piemen were forced to scrimp: their pies were made with cheap shortening, or had less filling, or poor-quality meat. Many of the legends of cats'-meat, or worse, in pies spring from this period. In 1833, Sam Weller advises the horrified Mr. Pickwick, 'Wery good thing is weal pie, when quite sure it ain't kittens.'

Nowadays we might avoid the pies for the hydrogenated fats, and we still know the disappointments of skimpy pie filling, but at least we are spared the cats.

On the plus side, fresh and seasonal were givens. Gooseberries and strawberries in summer, hot green peas at Easter, hot elder wine and pease pudding in winter. And as for beer, you only had to leave your pot hanging on your railing and potboys from the nearby pub would come by and fill it on weekday evenings. Like having your own milkman, but for beer.

If you had a little more time and money to eat, you could bypass the fast food offered at street stalls for a coffee house, soup house, or chop house. The last option served meat, bread, and half a pint for sixpence. And then there was the wonderfully named "slap-bang" aimed at poorer Victorian clerks with only a 15-minute lunch "hour." You hung up your hat, sat down, ordered, bolted your food, paid, and ran back to work.

And finally, for those for whom fast food wasn't fast enough, waiters could deliver food to office workers. I guess the sad practice of eating at your desk isn't something we invented this century either!

Nor were the ill effects of all that fast food just a modern consequence. As Morgan Spurlock discovered, too much low-quality food on the run wreaks havoc with your vitals. In Dickens' time, if you made it to the age of 16 without managing to die from the cornucopia of mortal diseases, your average life expectancy was 58. If you made it to 25 without mishap, you might eventually reach 61. Dickens himself only made it to 58, which doesn't sound old at all nowadays, but, really, that's a lot of stewed eel and cat's-meat pie.

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.