Even though health-conscious consumers have learned to shop cautiously, a close inspection of America's cupboards reveals that even the savviest of shoppers aren't necessarily eating better. Highly processed foods are still successfully marketed as healthy alter-natives, and for every study showing the benefits of a particu-lar piece of produce, there's an ambitious industrialist ready to extract, refine, and repackage the nutrient du jour (pomegranate smoothie, anyone?). Our food culture can even take a well-known health food like soy and transform it into a danger.
The reality, hard to digest amid all the preservatives and additives, is that a truly healthy diet is not only balanced but also whole, right down to the basic ingredients in our pantries. "I grew up and still live in the San Francisco Bay area. It's a place where farmers' markets have a real impact on many chefs and home cooks," says Heidi Swanson, author of Super Natural Cooking (Ten Speed, 2007). "But I started seeing that many of my everyday 'foundation' ingredients, the ones used to support the good stuff from the farmers' market, were heavily processed: nutritionally barren flours and grains, refined sugars, nut butters made from sprayed crops, and industrially produced cooking oils."
Swanson set out on a mission to revamp the building blocks of her diet and documented the transformation at her website, 101Cookbooks.com. "I started by gradually overhauling my pantry, and it immediately opened my eyes to a whole world of exciting--and completely under-utilized--grains," she says. "I traded standard pasta for noodles made of buckwheat, spelt, and spinach. Getting rid of all-purpose flour paved the way for whole wheat pastry flour, and oat, mesquite, and wild rice flours.
"Many industrial food producers bank on the idea that you aren't going to ask questions, or look under the hood at all, and they take advantage of this," the author says, reminding us of the introduction to Super Natural Cooking, where she writes: "Before these products made their way into your house or apartment, many were showered with agricultural chemicals, treated with chemical solvents, and stripped of most of their vitamins, minerals, fiber, and flavor."
Perhaps most nefariously, industrialization means that even diets that seem balanced can contain too much of a seemingly good thing. Just as corn begat the now ubiquitous high-fructose sweetener, soy oil now accounts for 80 percent of all liquid fat consumed in the United States. Anything processed or prepared probably contains the stuff, which is extracted from soy beans with a solvent that contains commercial hexane--also used in gasoline, glue, and heavy-duty cleansers. Soy oil shows up in cereal, bread, snack items, frozen foods, and imitation dairy and meat products.
"When I get overwhelmed or just plain confused by a product I'm unfamiliar with, I ask myself two questions," Swanson says. "If pressed, could I make this in my own kitchen? Can I explain how this is made to a young person?"
If you're interested in decreasing soy, forgo vegetable oils and margarines, many of which are made from soy, and consider using almond oil, cultured organic and clarified butter, or coconut, pistachio, and pumpkin seed oils.
While you're at it, Swanson also suggests pulling all the white stuff from your shelves--flour, sugar, rice, and bread. "This kicks off the creative process," she says. Then follow the five steps outlined in Super Natural Cooking.
Build a Natural Foods Pantry
Swanson explains how to dump the white stuff, and introduce a variety of flours and whole grains. This chapter also navigates oils and fats, and decodes natural sweeteners, such as agave nectar, molasses, and brown rice syrup, that take the place of granulated sugar.
Explore a Wide Range of Grains
Swanson advises, "Don't try to make the transition overnight," and previews grains such as barley, farro, millet, and quinoa, which due to its high protein content is great for vegetarians decreasing their soy in-take. Recipes include Wild Rice Flour Pancakes, Do-It-Yourself Power Bars, and Risotto-Style Barley.
Cook by Color
Color-saturated vegetables are rich in healthy phytonutrients, such as lutein and beta-carotene. Eating a variety of them is not a revolutionary idea, writes Swanson, but it is often overlooked. Rainbow-hued treats include Baked Purple Hedgehog Potatoes, Sweet Potato Spoon Bread, and Agua de Jamaica.
Know Your Superfoods
Swanson profiles her nutritional all-stars: alliums (such as garlic), cruciferous veggies, dried beans (such as butterscotch calypso and black valentine), lentils, nuts and seeds, sea veggies, sprouts, tea, and yogurt. Recipes include Chocolate Turtle Bean Tostadas and Golden-Crusted Brussels Sprouts.
Use Natural Sweeteners
Sweeteners lend moisture and volume to baked goods, act as binding agents, and provide texture, so forgoing granulated territory requires guidance. Swanson makes experimenting delicious with recipes for White Sangria with Drunken Peaches, Thin Mint Cookies, and Coconut Panna Cotta.
Other resources to help clean up your diet:
Real Food Daily (Ten Speed, 2005) by Ann Gentry. Another Californian, Gentry reflects the fare of her restaurants in this cookbook of the same name. Recipes are more complicated but no less delicious, and vegan to boot.
The Organic Cook's Bible (Wiley, 2006) by Jeff Cox. Less of a cookbook and more of a resource, look here when you're ready to break out the big rutabagas, or when you got too impulsive at the market and now you've got to cook that thing, whatever it is.
Whole Grains: Every Day, Every Way (Clarkson Potter, 2006) by Lorna Sass. Exclusively dedicated to great grains, half of Sass's mouth-watering recipes call for some sort of meat, because whole foods aren't just the domain of vegetarians and vegans.
Whole Foods Allergy Cookbook (Vital Health, 2006) by Cybele Pascal. A place to turn for whole-food cooking for common food sensitivities: dairy, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish, and refined sugar.