Whole New Diet

A health-savvy cookbook shows how to get away from processed foods

| Utne Reader July / August 2007 Issue

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?"

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