Monday, March 29, 2010


Painting by Santiago Proaño.


Hamburgers, French fries, hot dogs, pizza, breakfast cereal, doughnuts, candy bars, chicken nuggets, potato chips.

Q: What do these foods have in common?
A: You can eat them with your hands.
Q: What else do these foods have in common?
A: For the most part, they are fast foods and processed foods.

Jamie Oliver, a chef in England, traveled to the U.S. and has taken on a town in West Virginia, challenging them to eat better. If you’ve seen his TV show about this challenge, Food Revolution, you know it is going to be an uphill battle. At a local elementary school, Jamie asks the principal and the school lunch staff where the forks, knives and spoons are so that the school kids could eat the healthy meal he had prepared for them (pasta with vegetable sauce and a salad). He was astonished when the staff said that they didn’t give kids any forks, knives and spoons because they were dangerous (I suspect they were referring here to the knives and forks, especially). The other reason why they aren't given silverware is obvious if you've watched the show - everything the kids are fed is processed or fast food. Everything they are fed can be eaten with their hands!

Processed and fast foods were created for the sake of convenience. Setting aside the ridiculous government standards about what constitutes “food” in a school lunch program, the kids are fed fast and processed foods because it is easy to heat up (notice, I didn’t say “cook”) and it is easy to dish out to the kids. However, fast foods and processed foods are filled with unhealthy stuff – lots of fat, lots of salt, lots of sugar or other artificial sweeteners (like high fructose corn syrup), lots of artificial chemical ingredients, lots of food coloring and lots of poor quality protein (the discarded parts of animals which is smashed up and revamped with artificial stuff to look like something edible).

Take the chicken nugget. You’d think that a chicken nugget could be made with a small piece of chicken (say the chicken tender) and maybe a dusting of whole-wheat flour which is then either fried with a little bit of olive oil or baked, right? Well, Michael Pollen, in Omnivore’s Dilemma, describes the 38 ingredients that make a Chicken McNugget at McDonalds. Here’s what he writes:

“The ingredients listed in the flyer suggest a lot of thought goes into a nugget, that and a lot of corn. Of the thirty-eight ingredients it takes to make a McNugget, I counted thirteen that can be derived from corn: the corn-fed chicken itself; modified cornstarch (to bind the pulverized chicken meat); mono-, tri-, and diglycerides (emulsifiers, which keep the fats and water from separating); dextrose; lecithin (another emulsifier); chicken broth (to restore some of the flavor that processing leeches out); yellow corn flour and more modified cornstarch (for the batter); cornstarch (a filler); vegetable shortening; partially hydrogenated corn oil; and citric acid as a preservative. A couple of other plants take part in the nugget: There's some wheat in the batter, and on any given day the hydrogenated oil could come from soybeans, canola, or cotton rather than corn, depending on the market price and availability.

According to the handout, McNuggets also contain several completely synthetic ingredients, quasiedible substances that ultimately come not from a corn or soybean field but form a petroleum refinery or chemical plant. These chemicals are what make modern processed food possible, by keeping the organic materials in them from going bad or looking strange after months in the freezer or on the road. Listed first are the "leavening agents": sodium aluminum phosphate, mono-calcium phosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and calcium lactate. These are antioxidants added to keep the various animal and vegetable fats involved in a nugget from turning rancid. Then there are "anti-foaming agents" like dimethylpolysiloxene, added to the cooking oil to keep the starches from binding to air molecules, so as to produce foam during the fry. The problem is evidently grave enough to warrant adding a toxic chemical to the food: According to the Handbook of Food Additives, dimethylpolysiloxene is a suspected carcinogen and an established mutagen, tumorigen, and reproductive effector; it's also flammable. But perhaps the most alarming ingredient in a Chicken McNugget is tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, an antioxidant derived from petroleum that is either sprayed directly on the nugget or the inside of the box it comes in to "help preserve freshness." According to A Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives, TBHQ is a form of butane (i.e. lighter fluid) the FDA allows processors to use sparingly in our food: It can comprise no more than 0.02 percent of the oil in a nugget. Which is probably just as well, considering that ingesting a single gram of TBHQ can cause "nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse." Ingesting five grams of TBHQ can kill.”

All I read is “blah, blah, blah.” I can’t pronounce a lot of the words even! I do see that there is some type of lighter fluid in there. There is more corn in the McNugget than anything else. The word "chicken" only comes up twice – “pulverized chicken meat,” (aka, discarded pieces of the chicken all mashed up) and “chicken broth.” Yippee!

My point is not to pick on the McNugget (though there is obviously plenty to pick on). My point is that similar ingredients go into many fast or processed foods – all of which have in common that they don’t require the use of a fork, spoon or knife. To keep fast food and processed foods “fresh,” you have to put in a lot of preservatives, mostly artificial. To make some foods look and taste appealing, companies add artificial flavors and artificial colors. These foods – hotdogs, goldfish crackers, frozen pizzas, breakfast cereals – can all be eaten with your hands.

So, let’s start incorporating this simple rule when we eat – pick a meal that requires you to use a fork, a spoon or a knife – baked chicken, sautéed or roasted vegetables, a crispy green salad with nuts and fruit. Chances are with this simple rule, you will have picked a far more nutritious meal for yourself.

***NOTE: There are definite exceptions to the rule of choosing foods where you need to use a fork, knife and spoon. Ethiopian food is such an exception. It is cooked with whole food, it is delicious and good for you. But Ethiopians do eat with their hands, using injera, a traditional bread which looks like a spongy tortilla, to pick up the food and sop up the juices. Some South Asian cultures also use their hands to eat delicious, nutritious and whole foods. And don’t forget, nature’s fast food – fresh fruit!

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