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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Are Healthy Processed Foods an Oxymoron?

You might have seen the headlines yesterday that profits at McDonald's and Coca-Cola dropped in the last quarter. Could it be that Americans are finally turning away from junk food and soda?
Baby, don't hurt me, don't hurt me no more
The answer to that question seems to be Yes and No. Yes, Americans might finally be heeding all the warnings about our favorite junk foods, but, No, we still need convenient meals and snacks. Just give us the "healthy" stuff. The processed foods with added protein, vitamins, fiber, omega-3s, what-have-you.

We'll put down the Coca-Cola and reach for the Vitamin Water. We'll bypass the french fries for the whole-grain cereal. But are the "healthy" alternatives any healthier?

Recently I read another food-industry-investigation book, this one called Pandora's Lunchbox by Melanie Warner.

If you've run the gamut of food books, from Michael Pollan's oeuvre to Salt Sugar Fat and their ilk, you won't find a whole lot new in this book, although I did find a few interesting nuggets:

  •  Digesting a meal of whole, unprocessed foods raises your metabolic rate almost 50% over a meal of processed.
  • When Kraft started producing processed cheese, WI cheese makers wanted it called "embalmed cheese."
  • If soybean oil weren't bleached, it would be reddish-orange and contain beta carotene.
  • There are 2 ways to fix our omega-6/omega-3 imbalance: eat 6-10 ozs of salmon/day (until all the salmon are overfished and gone) or cut back on processed food.
  • Most of the 5000 food additives allowed are industry self-regulated and untested. (Basically a wait-until-somebody-gets-sick approach.)
Warner also includes a chapter called "Healthy Processed Foods," to look into such novelties as "resistant starch," which is "molecularly rearranged to withstand human digestion"--like fiber! Most natural fibers get broken up or removed during processing, so food manufacturers generally have to add it back in. Yes, resistant starch resists digestion, but can it reproduce the complexities of natural fiber, which comes with its own nutrient benefits that the gut processes in its equally complex ways? Who knows.

Warner notes that, "between 2007 and 2011, among the eight thousand packaged products evaluated, healthier choices made up roughly 40 percent of sales but generated more than 70 percent of sales growth." "Healthy" is good business. And "healthy," as defined by the food industry means reducing sugar and fat and generally replacing them with other cheap ingredients: "zero-calorie sweeteners, starches, gums, or taste-modification molecules." Genuine healthier food items require whole ingredients and less filler--hence the high prices of KIND bars which I remarked on earlier.

Can you find healthy processed foods? Since I don't think even a KIND bar can technically be called a healthy food (it's more like a healthier candy bar), the options are slim. There are roasted nuts in cans, frozen fruits and vegetables, unsweetened yogurt, plain old rolled oats. But, as always, the answer seems to be, if you want real healthy--genuine healthy--the only guarantee is to buy it yourself and cook it yourself.

Our farmers market offers the best of both worlds: whole foods from a farmer or vendor who can tell you exactly where it came from and how it came to be, and processed foods, where the vendor can tell you exactly where it came from and what went into it. No weirdness, no chem lab, no fillers.

So, fine, skip the McDonalds and the Coca-Cola. Our Market offers tuna and beef jerky, all kinds of baked goods, yogurt just waiting to be swirled with artisan jam, Hosui Asian pears, roasted peanuts, crisp apples and multiple varieties of pear--all to be washed down with fresh-pressed ciders or even Washington wine. Do these offerings cost more than the storebought ones? Sometimes--in the short run. The final tally on the processed foods won't be determined for years, but if the rising levels of obesity and metabolic syndrome and food allergies are any indicator, those "foods" have their own hidden price tags.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Last Thursday Market of the Season!

Let the weeping and gnashing of teeth begin! Not only are the mornings dark and the evenings dark, and not only have we started to consider an overcast day "good weather," and not only have we sighed to see summer's soft-fruit bounty giving way to the apples and pears of fall, but the Thursday Bellevue Farmers Market is in its last week.

This is the time to take a look at the "Thursday-only" farmers and vendors on the website, so you can either stock up or sign up or cut special deals with them when you visit the Market for their curtain call. Are you signed up for Skagit River Ranch's Buyers Club? Do you have enough Soulever Chocolates and Melt mac and cheese and House of the Sun kale chips to hold you? How's your salmon supply? Your hazelnuts? Your toffee? Your hum bao reserves? Got Soup?

Some folks might make the move to Saturday, but it's best to ask. And we have until the Saturday before Thanksgiving to get our fill of fresh and local before it's all gone gone gone. (See picture at top of post.)

As a Thursday swan song, I have two awesomely delicious recipes to help you capitalize on what you'll find this week (fingers crossed): End-of-the-Season Kitchen-Sink Sauté and Yu Choi with Oyster Sauce.

End-of-the-Season Kitchen-Sink Sauté

2 ears of corn*, boiled for two minutes
2 medium tomatoes*, cut in eighths
couple handfuls of spinach or chard, de-stemmed, rinsed and cut in big pieces
2 slices bacon*

Cut corn off cobs and set aside.

Fry bacon on low or med-low heat until to desired doneness. Remove and drain on paper towels, than crumble. Leaving the bacon fat in the pan, turn the heat to medium. When the pan is hot, throw in the greens (as much as you like, really), and stir-fry till almost wilted. Throw in the tomato slices and cook until the greens are dark and soft. Remove from heat.

Stir in corn, season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve.

This second recipe came to mind because, at my favorite dim sum place in the Bay Area, we always order these greens alongside the other goodies, as a sop to the nutrition gods. When I found yu choy at Blia's stand, I immediate drooled to think of recreating this at home. Usually the greens and stems are stir-fried, and then drizzled with oyster sauce, but Blia's helper guy remarked that his mom usually just boiled them. Done.

[Pic from seasonednoob.com because I forgot to take one!]

Boiled Yu Choy with Oyster Sauce

1 bunch yu choi*, rinsed and cut in 4-inch sections
some bottled oyster sauce

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and put in ALL the yu choy. There's a lot, so you probably have to keep at it for a while. Simmer for about 5 minutes, or until the stalks are tender.

Drain and drizzle with oyster sauce.

Kids who like broccoli usually like this dish, and doesn't broccoli get old after a while?

So come one and all and see you this Thursday. I'll be the one weeping silently into her reusable canvas shopping bags...