Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Can too much knowledge about food be a bad thing? Or too much of the wrong knowledge.
After doing the rounds of food today with my son, and answering such questions as, "why does the inside of the ice cream freezer fog up after you close the door?" or "why do you only put one kind of food in each bag?" or "why can't the crabs crawl out of the tank into the other tank?" I wonder...

But I think these are pretty good questions to ask at a grocery store. They deal with things you can see. Right now there is so much talk about food that has to do with concepts and ideas about food (Is it organic? Is it organic enough? Just what is a trans-fat? And why do they put it into italics? Is that because it is SO evil? How do I tell a carb from a sugar? Do bad carbs come with frowny faces?) And so on. Instead...

How about questions we can actually answer in the grocery store?

Are these new crop or last years onions? Turns out we are into New Crop onions (I learned about "New Crop" while interested in rice - it means harvested THIS CURRENT SEASON, instead of being in storage for awhile. I LOVE that we have developed sophisticated cold storage... but still, fresh is fresh, and summer is known for that.) New crop (why can't they just say Fresh? I guess that is a word that has been bleached of meaning, like "home made") onions are heftier, weightier in the hand. Not to be snobby - but wow, it was cool I could tell! Potatoes are starting to come in too. Their flesh is hard, like little rocks, and the cuts they almost all get while being dug up are still unscarred.

Are the strawberries local? Most stores tell you with big signs (and the price) but the nose will tell you as well. And do they look like they will bruise if you look at them too long? Then they are the delicious, squashy, no white-inside, good for only a day, don't let them sit out, terrible at traveling, local strawberries. (I used to eat them while sitting in the field - making a little-girl-piggy of myself while my mom picked in earnest)

Why should I buy kale? Turns out you can make Crispy kale with a little oil and salt and a 425˚F oven.

What is the point of buying all these ingredients? Wait... not sure if you can actually answer that one at the grocery store. Or can you? If you walk in the aisle and look at the things where all the ingredients are included - you start to run across things that are not even trying to pretend to be food any more: Blue, children's cereal themed, sugary goop in the yogurt section - Prepackaged Lunch substitutes either marketed to kids, parents of kids, or adults. (It is worth comparing the different marketing strategies for Lunchables vs. Kid Cuisine) - Strange substances distantly related to food in the freezer case. Chips with guacamole already in them? What is the POINT I ask you!

The trans-fat mystery is nowhere near an answer (I suspect the italics emerge from an archaic convention of chemical nomenclature... but that would be a VERY odd thing to cling to in a world where they don't include decimal amounts of things on food labels.)

Ah yes... the "No trans-fats *per serving*" label.
Now there is a bait and switch worth the name. The insidious thing about trans-fats is they are devilishly shelf stable (hard to digest, and thus part of the whole problem). And you need so very little to make the things around them more shelf stable as well. So with this "Per Serving" dodge, a product can include a LITTLE trans-fat, but as long as it comes to less than 0.5g per serving, because of the magic of rounding rules, they are allowed to say 0g per serving. (Remember 0-4 are rounded to 0, and 5-9 are rounded up to the next value... stop reading if it gives you elementary school math flashbacks). And since we have been deemed too simple to deal with decimals in our calorie counts... the trans are still with us. We are no wiser, we just think we are - with a zero on a label to lull us into contentment.

Irony time - if the food doesn't come with a label rigorously telling us lots of facts that are essentially meaningless to us, it doesn't have trans-fat. The trans- is a result of fat being removed from it's host (soybean, corn, pig, nut, seed, other 'vegetable') and then chemically and thermically poked and prodded until it becomes something other than it was - all bent and twisted and largely unrecognizable to the digestive workings all things that want to get to food before we do (bacteria, molds, fungi, other microscopic critters) and thus renders it shelf stable - it is not going ANYWHERE for the foreseeable future (best by date on package). The down side is the trans- fat is hardly recognizable by us. And when it gets into our digestive workings... it gums up the works.

And if I spend all my time worrying about trans-fat or the organic-ness of my organic food choices, I forget to think about the food on the level I actually interact with it.

Shallots to go with the bock choy - what do I have that is sour to balace that? Red peppers and a sesame vinaigrette with lime juice. Sweet and spicy for the meat to go with the noodles. Do I have Hoisin sauce at home for the flank steak? (That may count as unanswerable at the grocery store.)

Ack - the kale has a lady bug in it. I guess it's organic enough.

If we are actually cooking our food, and thinking, really thinking about how it tastes, then the questions we ask are going to be answerable, and the answers useful.

Coming up next... a slog through the government dietary guidelines. And a ponder into why making food guidelines MORE complex will somehow make us healthier.

No comments: