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YS Blog — Lauren Heaton

BLOG – What’s in a carrot?

This column is not meant to be a socially critical invective about the state of our food and agricultural industries. But there is no other way to begin talking about food than by addressing what, exactly, is food? Well actually, I’m better at saying what it isn’t.

We are misled to believe that food is anything that provides energy to our bodies. Three and a half ounces of whale blubber (about the size of a hot dog) packs a mean 96 grams of fat energy, and our bodies are efficient enough to use it to power our entire metabolic system. But it’s obvious that unless I’m spending every day running on ice with a harpoon in my hand, whale blubber is neither palatable nor appropriate for my lifestyle.

But how about “foods” we find in every conventional grocery store in the country, such as the cute and handy Oscar Meyer Lunchables, the Kraft macaroni & cheese kids love so much, or General Mills’ Hamburger Helper Cheesy Jambalaya mix that evokes a remotely ethnic feeling? These products are fast and easy, and our bodies do a pretty good job of turning them into energy for us. But can we honestly call them food?

Don’t think that your tongue is more educated than your gut. According to the Kraft Web site, a turkey cheddar Lunchable consists of a turkey and cheddar “cheese” sub, applesauce, Nilla wafers and Kool-Aid singles. The enriched bun alone has a list of ingredients 18 deep, which you know includes chemicals you can’t pronounce — and by the way, the bread I make has five ingredients: whole wheat flour, yeast, salt, olive oil and water. The turkey has 15 ingredients, which may say something about what happened to the poor bird after it was killed, and should perhaps be illegal. The “cheese” is actually a “reduced fat cheddar pasteurized prepared cheese product,” and reminds me of Cheez Whiz, another Kraft invention that came right off the lab bench and whose first two ingredients are canola oil and whey (the cheaper and less nutritious broth left over after real cheese is made.) The mayonnaisey dressing, a food normally made by blending egg yolks, vinegar and vegetable oil, contains 26 ingredients.

Never mind the wafers, which are just as bad as the bread, but the Kool Aid, OMG, the FDA still hasn’t shut down this food imposter? Kraft advertises it as a “fun-fiz drink drop,” a product that actually boasts its lack of caloric value while emphasizing its purpose as an entertainment tool, essentially telling kids, “Don’t eat your food, play with it!” And with the products Kraft manufactures, that’s likely good advice. According to the Hastings Museum, Kool Aid’s creator, Edwin Perkins “was always fascinated by chemistry and enjoyed inventing things,” full stop. A carrot didn’t have to be invented. A carrot has no ingredients. Some 5,000 years ago in what is now Afghanistan, a clean, crunchy, straight from the earth carrot was born, and to this day it remains, our humble carrot.

This is not to say that a food has to be healthy to be considered real. A butter cookie with whole ingredients like butter, stoneground flour, organic cane sugar and vanilla is still real food. But manufactured products with ingredients that started out as foods but got degraded through chemical processing and then got mixed with stabilizers, fillers, preservatives, dyes, and chemical flavorings cross the line between edible and ill-advised.

I don’t even mind that companies make money from manufacturing products that people find fun. I’ve eaten York peppermint patties since I was little, and I actually do like those nasty little wieners. But I think the French are onto something, calling these products what they really are: amuses gueules, toys for our tongues.

Maybe broccoli could make the playlist if it came with a cute label spelling out cooking instructions: wash, chop, stir fry with ginger, sesame oil, tamari and chicken. Maybe that would make people think broccoli is fast food. And if we could get a Spiderman toy to peek out of the florettes, kids might beg their dads to cook broccoli every night for dinner.

Just to review, bleached enriched flour, bad; brown rice good. And don’t tell me or even imply that I can live on hotdogs, Lucky Charms and Lunchables, because even though they’re fun and you’ve got to dig them sometimes, mostly I want to eat my food, not play with it.

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7 Responses to “BLOG – What’s in a carrot?”

  1. erikagrushon says:

    Well done, Ms. Heaton! I shall look forward to reading this blog when you post — yay! I was recently perusing Bette Hagman’s Gluten-free Gourmet Cooks Fast & Healthy while almost simultaneously watching Julie/Julia again and I wondered about going through all of her recipes in a year–of course there are NOT 500 and some odd recipes in this one, but there are some delightfully brilliant most-allergen-free recipes and I talk to people every day w/ new scrumptious and good for your soul recipes (like Vee!) –anyways, this could turn into something REALLY great for the village!

  2. Vanessa Query says:

    Ooh, I almost forgot–you say, “This is not to say that a food has to be healthy to be considered real.” Touché! This makes me think of all the so-called “all natural” labels out there. It doesn’t even mean anything anymore. When high-fructose corn syrup is considered “all natural”, you know we’ve hit rock-bottom. And all that “USDA certified organic” bollocks. I can’t remember the exact numbers and I’m too lazy to research them now, but I think that “USDA certified organic” means that 70% of the ingredients have to be organic and “made with organic ingredients” means it has to be just 30%… and let’s not forget the increasing number of technically “organic”, massively agribusinessy, single-crop farms… yeesh.

    Okay that’s my mini-rant for the day…

    • Lauren Shows says:

      vanessa, that’s a really interesting point, and a telling one. it lets us know that the food industry does keep up with what’s “hip” (and to be honest, it’s “hip” to be “green” lately), but the industry also knows that the majority of us will trust whatever they write on the label. the same applies to products claiming to be “fair-trade” on occasion.

      • Vanessa Query says:

        Chuck: a touché to you as well! I’m not saying that all these companies are necessarily evil, but they are certainly manipulative and let’s be honest, their priority is the bottom line, not our health. So not evil but rather amoral in their indifference to people. The whole “green is the new black” may be raising awareness of some of these issues but you’re right, if it’s a trend it’s commodified and if it’s commodified it’s not about what’s “right” anymore, it’s about money and power and capitalism…

  3. Lauren Shows says:

    tootsie roll pops and frosted animal cookies might be the toys of the food world, but some of us have always been loath to grow up.

    i think i have to take baby steps. is it okay if i garnish my broccoli with a little ez cheese?
    :)

  4. I like the idea of thinking of sweets/junk food and the like as “toys for our tongues”. Fun once in a while but not to be used all the time (unhealthy), or none of the time (boring/stressful).

    The stressful part is what gets me… I mean yeah if we lived away from the industrialized world where horrific and lovely chemicalled sweets didn’t surround and tantalize us, it’d be easy to not indulge, but my god, the temptations!!

    I’ve been trying to not be too hard on myself, by allowing the occasional indulge and more and more finding my own alternatives… like the Greek yogurt-cinnamon-cocoa thing I was telling you about… mmm…

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