As I peruse discussions on nutrition and “real food” there are two terms I’m struck with again and again “chemicals” and “natural.” Without context neither mean much of anything when it comes to food.
NaCl, C12H22O11, H2O <— Ooh scary look chemicals! Those are the chemical formulas for table salt, sugar, and water. Chemical reactions are necessary for life. Without them we couldn’t undergo respiration (oxidative metabolism) and transform the food we eat into energy. Don’t be alarmed, but there are chemical reactions happening in your body as you read this.
Natural is quite possibly even more annoying when used too broadly. Rattle snakes, black widows, oleanders, mistletoe, nightshade, hemlock, all of these things are perfectly natural and dangerous. Women used to save up apple seeds to eat. Why? It made them pale, at the time this was an attractive feature. It was being achieved through arsenic poisoning and arsenic is naturally present in the seeds of apples.
The term natural means nothing.
I was venting my frustration on Twitter and my friend Dave Slusher remarked that civilization formed because most of nature will kill us. Sitting in a somewhat comfortable chair, locked in an air-conditioned room, enjoying coffee, and some time on my computer, I find that comment succinct and profound.
If I find the terms meaningless and am not scared of the word chemicals, why do I continually drag out my soapbox on overly processed foods?
Nutrition isn’t simple.
If it were I don’t think we’d be facing all of the health problems we are today. Up until fairly recent history, overweight was sexy. Why? Only the rich could afford enough food to become overweight, it was as attractive as money and power because it took those two to get that way.
In our country. In this day. Over-processed food is killing us, slowly and painfully through diseases like Type 2 Diabetes.
Fat, salt, and sugar taste amazing and we evolved with a taste for these things. When food wasn’t abundant these urges for these tastes lead us to foods that would sustain us. Now these things are put into food in specific ways to make them even more desirable, despite their having little nutritional value.
But Heather, cooking is processing food.
When you slow cook a pot roast, you’re processing the food into a new form. That’s true, I am. When I say a food is over-processed, it is a subjective term. I mean that the food in question has been altered so much that it satisfies our cravings but doesn’t fulfill our needs. MSG (yep, back to the monosodium glutamate discussion) and high fructose corn syrup are cheap and easy ways to stimulate our palates and we train our tastes to expect that level of excitement. Foods without these items can taste bland by comparison, even though they may carry much more nutritional value.
When you cook your own food you have control over what is put into that food and in what quantities. This by itself doesn’t magically make food healthy, but it is a start and it gives a consumer a cost-effective way of improving their diet.
In my menu planning primer I do recommend starting out just by eating at home, even if that means Hamburger Helper and Taco Kits. People don’t go from the couch to running a marathon overnight and non-cooks don’t go from take out to gourmet overnight either. I write this site to meet people wherever they are in their cooking journey and I want to do so without sounding judgmental.