Wednesday, June 29, 2011

2 More Days

My last chocolate bar until August sits on my desk, taunting me, asking me if I really want to go through with this.

It’s all very exciting when I’m in the mindset for it, but what about when, like today, I’m just on my way home from renewing my parking permit and all I want is to get in and out of the grocery store as quickly as possible so I can go home?  That’s the attitude most of us have about grocery shopping, isn’t it?  I mean sure, it can be fun if you’re shopping for a party, or ingredients for a new recipe, but just stocking up for a typical week?  That’s what gives rise to that one-more-thing-on-my-errands-list feeling that I’m going to have to overcome if I’m going to make this work.

And maybe that’s a good thing.  Maybe that’s a part of the experiment.  As my favorite food guru, Michael Pollan, is quick to point out, far less time is devoted today to finding, preparing, and enjoying food than ever before in history.  Maybe something that’s so basically essential to our survival deserves a little more of our time and consideration than we give it.

So I went to Whole Foods, knowing that finding corn-free products there wouldn’t be quite the needle-in-a-haystack search that it is at some of the more mainstream grocery stores.  I know I can kiss frozen dinner goodbye, but I don't have time to cook up meat and vegetables every single night.  There has to be a way to work something relatively quick and easy into this diet.  Hasn’t there?  What about spaghetti?

Whole Foods’ store-brand pasta is made up of, among other things, the following list:
·              - Niacin
·              -Iron
·              -Thiamine mononitrate
·              -Riboflavin
·              -Folic acid

No “oses”, that’s a relief.  At least all of these things are (supposedly) good for you, but where do they come from?  Spell-checker has drawn that angry red squiggle under the word “mononitrate”, suggesting that this list is more of a lesson in organic chemistry than it is a group of “whole foods.”

It would be nice to believe that all these wonderful nutrients are picked straight from the Nutrient Tree (there was one of those in the Garden of Eden, right?) and then hand-stirred into the pasta dough by a jolly old woman in Italy, but I owe it to the growing list of people who actually read this not to slack off on the details.

So, just to be safe, I spent the extra dollar fifty per box on the “100% Organic” Dellallo brand pasta, which consists of a single ingredient: organic durum wheat semolina, and when I got home, got out the old Sherlock Holmes hat and pipe to try and figure out where nutrients come from.

The answer was inconclusive.  I won't bore you with the whole list, but in the case of niacin, for example, I learned that it's naturally occurring in many different foods, including corn (uh-oh) and wheat (so does that mean it's naturally occurring in the pasta?  But if that were true, why did they list it separately?).  It can also be synthesized from tryptophan, which is the stuff in turkey that gets the blame for making you drowsy at Thanksgiving.

So, what do you think?  Do I put niacin on the blacklist just in case, or do we give it a pass?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Fructose and Glucose and Sucrose, Oh My!

I did a practice-run grocery shopping trip today.  It took longer than my normal trips to the grocery store take, which I was expecting.  But what I wasn't expecting was how successful I would be at my mission, and how accomplished, how informed I would feel at the end of it.  I've read ingredients lists and nutrition facts before, of course, but with a completely different attitude.  After finishing another book by Michael Pollan just yesterday, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, I'm seeing the whole experience of eating in a new light.  Instead of looking for the percent daily value of vitamins and the ever-expanding list of subcategories of fats and carbohydrates, I was just looking what kinds of food things contained.

The produce section was easy, of course.  The simplest way to know what's in your food is to buy foods that don't look any different than they did when they were still growing.

The next step was the non-perishable aisles.  That was a matter of scanning the list for the obvious and not-so-obvious signs of corn-derived additives.  I'm going to have to do some more research on exactly which ingredients to look out for, but a good jumping-off place seems to be sugar, which means anything ending in "ose".  Glucose, fructose, and dextrose, in the U.S. anyway, are almost exclusively derived from cornstarch, according to Wikipedia.  Sucrose is Corn-Free-July approved, as it refers to sugar derived from either good old sugarcane, or beets.

Although, on second thought, it might be simpler and safer to boycott all the "oses" just in case.  My mother, who once visited a farm that grows commercially-sold sugar beets, reports being alarmed, to say the least, at the sight of bright blue seeds planted by the thousands.  The unnatural coloring was a chemical herbicide present in the seed before it even gets planted.  (At least one website discussing various sugar beet herbicides strictly warns not to inhale, touch, or otherwise directly contact the chemicals in question.  Great advice for something going in your food, eh?)  When my mother asked the farmer where the sugar from his beets ended up, he said the majority of it was used in candy.  That's good news for all you homicidal neighbors of small children.  This year you don't have to bother poisoning your Halloween treats; the manufacturer has done that for you!

After grabbing a bag of Cape Cod chips (ingredients: potatoes, canola oil, salt) and a can of black beans (ingredients: black beans, water) I faced the real challenge: the animal products.  This one is the most challenging because of the one-step-up-the-food-chain nature of my project.  An ingredients list on a carton of eggs won’t tell you what the chicken who laid them ate.  And, as you probably know, the labels on animal products boast an array of conflicting and confusing adjectives including “cage-free”, “organic”, “natural” and “vegetarian fed”.  This part of the shopping trip also proved to be the most rewarding, however, because it allowed me to set free my common sense.  Instead of rifling through my brain for the memory that “glucose” is Science for “one of the types of sugar molecules into which corn starch breaks down,” I simply thought about what everyday words and phrases really mean.  

“Cage-free”.  All right, no cage.  The chickens still could have been (and probably were) raised in a barn with very little sunlight or room to move around.  Which leads us to “vegetarian fed”.  Why would you advertise that a chicken was vegetarian fed?  Chickens on traditional farms get fed corn, sure, but they also roam around foraging for seeds, leaves and bugs!  They’re omnivores just like us!  So a vegetarian fed hen has almost certainly not been raised humanely.  Although it’s a step up from the egg cartons that make no claims whatsoever, since it’s a safe bet that the processed-corn-based feed on which those hens were raised included trace amounts of dead chicken bits!  Yum! 

“Organic” and “natural” are two words I’m frankly just sick of seeing on food.  Really think about what these words mean. Of course food is organic and natural.  What did you think it was?  Inorganic?  Unnatural?  Are the shoppers here people or robots?

You know what, don’t answer that.

In the end, I bought a half-dozen of Pete & Gerry’s Organic Eggs, which had all the aforementioned labels that make me skeptical, but also claimed to be “Certified Humane Raised & Handled”.  And for an added bonus, on the inside of the carton, there was a photo of a smiling woman with a chicken in her arms.  It was the best I was going to do at the Foodmaster.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

10 Day Countdown

When I first got this idea, I thought July 1st was too late to start.  I couldn't wait.  I wanted to do it right now!  But with suddenly just ten days to go before I swear off all deconstructed corn products for a month, I realize how unprepared I still am. Where am I going to get pizza?  And Thai food?  And ice cream?  (Those questions are not rhetorical.  Please advise.)

But I suppose I should try to explain why I'm going to all of this trouble in the first place.  I guess it all started about a year ago when I read Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.  It made me think about corn in a whole new way.  The author devotes a big chunk of the story to analyzing just how much corn sneaks its way into our diet without our knowing it, both directly and indirectly.  Not only are we inundated with corn-based sugars and oils in just about everything we eat, but we're eating corn even when we're not.  Most factory-farmed cows, pigs, chickens, and even some fish (FISH!) are fed a diet that is made up largely of corn, and when they don't get the diverse array of nutrients that nature intended for them, neither do we, one step up the food chain.

Do you remember those TV commercials from a couple of years ago?  Like this one?
That basically said that if you think high fructose corn syrup is bad for you, you're an idiot?  Apparently someone does, because when I searched on YouTube just now, I easily found not only the original commercials, but  some very angry backlash to them (and a Saturday Night Live Spoof).  Those commercials market high fructose corn syrup as being "nutritionally the same as sugar".  Well if that's the case, why don't we just eat, ya know, sugar?  Why are we eating a sugar-like substance made in a lab from a plant that's perfectly good on its own in whole food form?

The answer to that wouldn't fit in one blog post, of course, but there's definitely something not right about the whole thing.  And yes, I know, if we all stopped buying anything with corn in it all of a sudden, then what's left of our rickety little economy would probably topple right over.  Not to mention, we'd all starve to death because there just isn't enough farm land to support the however-many billion of us the old fashioned way.  I'm not saying I have the answer.  Just the opposite in fact.  The more research I do for this project, the more I realize how much I don't know, and how complicated the issue of where and how we get our food really is.

I don't know what's going to happen on August 1st.  Whether I'll say "Thank God that's over" and run to Wendy's for a bacon cheeseburger and a Frosty, or whether I'll choose to stick it out a little longer, only time will tell.  What I do know is that I'm looking forward to the adventure; to learning things, discovering recipes, and meeting people I can't imagine yet.

Monday, June 20, 2011


Please don't misunderstand me; I've got nothing against corn.  I worked on a farm for seven years, and there were days when I would deal with nothing but corn.  I'd sell it by the ear and by the dozen ears.  I'd shoo away customers who tried to strip the husks off to see what was inside.  At lunch time, I'd eat it raw.  To this day, if I do too much heavy lifting, a muscle in my left shoulder will flair up and remind me of the days when I should have stretched before tossing fifty pound sacks of corn into the bed of my little white Ford Ranger.

No, I don't have a problem with corn.  And if you offer me an ear of it during the month of July, I'll accept, so in that way, I suppose the whole project is a misnomer.  But somehow, "High Fructose Corn Syrup in the USA" doesn't seem to roll off the tongue as well.  Besides, it's not just HFCS I want to stay away from, (I hate acronyms, but we'll get to that) it's partially hydrogenated corn oil, xanthan gum, and pretty much all the other weird stuff at the bottom of the ingredients list.

So I'm going on a thirty-one day cleanse from all of it.  It's going to be hard, but it's going to be fun.  I'll get to experiment with different recipes, find new places to grocery shop, support local farmers, and, hopefully, feel healthier at the end of it.  I hope you'll stay tuned to see how it goes!