Tuesday, August 4, 2009

What is and isn’t food …. or, why we choose to eat this way

If you haven’t read Michael Pollan’s article in the New York Times from late last week it is definitely worth checking out. I loved his books, Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food. He has a talent for getting to important points without being preaching that I find refreshing.

A few days ago I was reading Michael Pollan’s article “Out of the Kitchen, Onto to Couch” and it struck me how much of what most people consume everyday I don’t consider food. If you spend any time watching cooking shows you see “chefs” (and believe me I use that term loosely) telling you to use canned or jarred items every few minutes to “cook” dinner. Really, using things from jars and cans is cooking? Who knew?

I thought about this issue for days and vacillated over whether or not to post my thoughts on this topic. I recognize that my ideas about food are not mainstream and that people may be turned off by what I have to say. However, I also think it is an important issue that most people haven't thought about and maybe if they did they would make a change or two.

My husband was diagnosed with kidney cancer a little over 5 years ago. When we got this diagnosis we were shocked, confused and wanted to understand how this happened. When the urologist told us it was most likely some toxin that he had come into contact with I couldn’t believe it. How could he come in contact with a toxin, he is a banker? Banking isn’t a high-risk profession. When the doctor explained that it could have been a food additive, preservative, fertilizer or pesticide it stopped me in my tracks. You mean I could have fed him something that caused the cancer? This idea lead to my ultimate obsession with cooking fresh food that was free of any ingredient that I considered questionable. Since my undergrad and grad degrees were both in finance and I hadn’t had a science class since high school (decades ago) my idea of questionable foods is probably broader than most. Questionable foods for me include anything that sounds remotely “scientific or chemical”. If a packaged food contains an ingredient that isn’t food I won’t buy it anymore. It has taken years for me to learn to make things that many people think nothing of buying.

How often do you see vegan blogs or cookbooks tell you to use mass produced vegan sour cream or cream cheese substitutes? Have you read the ingredient labels on those products? They are as scary as the dairy originals, but in a different way. I understand why people would buy these items but do they really understand what they are consuming, and more importantly what those chemicals are doing to them?

The food system in this country has gotten scary. Ingredients that require a chemistry degree to understand are in the food most people eat everyday. How can anyone believe regularly consuming chemicals won’t impact their body and/our health? I struggle with this issue everyday. Sure, I enjoy cooking, but it does take time to make everything from scratch. I still buy a few ingredients (black bean and garlic sauce, chili and garlic sauce, the occasional veggie burger). However those purchased items are becoming more rare in my kitchen.

Our decision to go vegan was made in what seemed like a moment. I was reading about kidney cancer and saw that the by-product of animal protein metabolism was hard on the kidneys. Since my husband had one kidney removed I stopped preparing meat that same day. As time passed I became more engrossed in reading about nutrition as it applied to disease prevention and my cooking continued to evolve to where it is today. Most of the ingredients I bring into the house are whole foods (fresh food from the field with dirt, seeds, and skin). I will buy a few processed items but these are things like vital wheat gluten, whole-wheat pasta, canned tomatoes, pomegranate juice or green tea. I do spend a good deal of time on food preparation but that is mostly due to the variety of food that I cook. I intentionally challenge myself to make different foods and not rely on the same recipes. Cooking with different ingredients should ensure that we get a broader variety of vitamins and minerals.

If you had told me ten years I ago I would quit work and become a full time homemaker I would have thought you were crazy. Why would someone with a good education give up a career to be a housewife? Easy, I love my husband. No, I adore my husband and anything that I can do that may keep him healthy is more important to me than anything else in the world. I love you baby!

If you haven’t thought about what you eat please read Michael Pollan’s article. Your health, or the health of someone you love, may depend on it.


  1. Hi Alicia,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts...I couldn't agree more; the food we eat today really bears thinking about. In the last 80 years or so the way our food is produced has changed dramatically and drastically--mass production of products and factory farming, the use of artificial ingredients and chemical fertilizers--and so many many other things that our bodies are not designed to ingest or be exposed to on a daily basis.

    I recently read a book that you might be familiar with called "Never Be Sick Again" by Raymond Francis. He talks extensively about nutrition, but also the plethora of toxins that are all around us in common household products such as toothpaste, shampoo, carpets,and so on.

    We have always tried to stay on the whole foods/ organic path, but now more than ever, we're striving for an all-natural approach in our daily lives.

  2. Rose,

    Thanks for weighing in on this topic. It is nice to know we aren't alone in our thoughts.

    Also, thanks for the book recommendation. I hadn't heard of that one. I will definitely look for it the next time I get to the bookstore.

    Have you seen the EWG website? It rates beauty care products according to toxicity. I thought it was a fascinating website.


  3. That's a great resource (EWG), I'll have to spend some time there...I just did a quick search and my skin care products got bad marks. :(

    Thanks again!

  4. Rose,

    Glad you enjoyed the EWG site. Sorry your skin care products didn't score well. I had the same thing happen to me. I keep threatening to start making my own products, but somehow I don't know that I have enough time for that.


  5. Really, using things from jars and cans is cooking? Who knew?

    i totally agree with you,i had a roommate that once told me that she cooked for her guy and that that was "just the way she was raised". i was dully impressed because cooking a breakfast, lunch, and dinner is time consuming. well... dinner was out of a box, lunch was spam(well she heated it up...) (not a joke) and even the meaty stuff she made was prepackaged already flavored etc. she asked me if i cooked and i said no not really. because the things that i make are so simple. also i DONT really feel like cooking is using cans and jars and artificial flavorings. i wish i lived on a farm where i could have enough space to be self sufficient....rant over, :)

  6. dirtyduck,

    I think it is such a shame that so many Americans don't know how to cook. Most of my friends don't go into the kitchen except for a cup of coffee (although there are a few exceptions).

    I was raised by a woman that didn't and doesn't cook. I taught myself to cook by reading books. If you get one good book (like "the Professional Chef" from the CIA) it will have 99% of everything you need to know. Once you know all the basics cooking becomes variations on a theme.

    I wish I lived on a farm too! But ..... then I would need to be a better gardener. I have a great herb garden and also grow lettuce, but not much else. Gardening is a skill I am still struggling to acquire.



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