What’s in Your Food?

I’ve been scratching my head lately over the new Ore-Ida Steam n’ Mash Potatoes. Have you seen the tv ad for them yet? I must be in their target market because it feels like I see the commercial every time I turn on the tube. They’re a bag of frozen, peeled, cubed potatoes that you pop into the microwave and  then mash and add whatever ingredients you like to make mashed potatoes.

The commercial shows a happy wonder-mom pulling the bag out of the microwave, and using her old-fashioned potato-masher to mix in butter and milk for – VOILA! – delectable mashed potatoes for her hungry family. I have never tried these, they may be delicious. (Based on my own Food Rule that food packaged in plastic usually tastes like plastic, I’d guess that they’re not.) My perplextion (if that’s a word) comes from having a hard time believing that we are so addicted to easy-meal foods that we need to buy already sliced, cubed and par-cooked potatoes.

A bag of these Steam n’ Mashers costs about $4.50 and takes 12 minutes to heat up in the microwave. You can buy a 5-lb bag of Russets for less than that. And even if you’re clumsy with a vegetable peeler, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to peel enough potatoes for your week night family dinner. Sure, you have to boil the water and cook them, but that takes zero attention, or you could partially or fully cook the potatoes in the microwave to cut down on time. So since this bag isn’t saving you money, and it probably doesn’t produce a superior dish, is it really saving you all that much time? And what’s the trade off?

In this case, the trade off is that you’ll have an extra ingredient in your mashed potatoes: Disodium Dihydrogen Pyrophosphate. I have no idea what that is. I did do some research to try to find out what it was, and it’s a buffering and chelating agent – basically it keeps the potatoes together in cubes and prevents them from turning brown. It’s also used to clean hides in leather processing, is a common ingredient in cleaning products, and is effective at removing hair/feathers and scurf after hog and poultry slaughter. Na2H2P2O7 (for all you science nerds out there) also usually comes from China. And particularly after the past few years, it’s not unreasonable to then be concerned about consistency or integrity.

Disodium Dihydrgen Pyrophosphate is a GRAS substance – meaning it’s Generally Recognized as Safe by the FDA. And it is most probably very benign in these potatoes. My question to you is this: Are you comfortable with the trade off – quick prep for Disodium Dihydrgen Pyrophosphate? The food won’t be cheaper, probably won’t taste better, and won’t take much less time to prepare. Then why is it that these Steam n’ Mashers will probably fly off the freezer shelves?

Now this blog is about recipes and cooking and enjoying food, so I don’t mean to rant on about processed foods, chemical additives, the current state of our food industry, and how I think it’s paving the way to our current obesity epidemic. There are plenty of excellent blogs out there to preach that story. What i am excited to tell you about is my own experiences with food, and how I changed from being a processed-food-junkie to finding connection with the food I was eating – one home-cooked meal at a time. And that it’s a connection that everyone can have with their own diet.

I used to get headaches. Like all the time. Pretty bad migraine headaches that would send me into a tailspin for a day or two at a time. I did all the headache diaries, all the medical tests, tried all the silly remedies and drugs and nothing reliably worked. I started to wonder if they could possibly be attributed to some of the additives or chemicals in all those frozen dinners I was eating.  I started picking up boxes and looking at the ingredients list, trying to trace each back to some plant or animal that I actually wanted to eat. And that’s when I started to realize how much other chemical crap I was ingesting.

I grew up eating predominantly homemade meals, probably like you did. That’s the way most people lived up until quite recently – not because it was “organic” or “sustainable” or “healthy” but because that’s the way you make food! Popping open a box of microwavable food-shaped chemicals is a fairly new phenomenon, and when I realized how much I of it I was consuming, I decided to learn to cook myself.

So initially, learning to cook was just cultivating a survival skill – woman cannot live on frozen fish stick alone – and trying to get rid of these bloody headaches. Now of course, I feel lucky that cooking has grown into a hobby that I thoroughly enjoy doing. And the deeper I’ve waded into the culinary, nutrition, and agribusiness worlds, the more passionate I’ve become about it.

Granted, I am not a busy mom juggling a full time job, soccer practice, math tutors, home and school meetings, and making sure there’s enough cash in the checking account to pay the mortgage, all while getting dinner on the table at 6:00 every night. My situation is completely different, and I have the luxury of having the time to wander through the farmer’s market each weekend. And I certainly don’t mean to preach to you to do the same. I’m just politely suggesting that we all need to think about our food, and see if there are any consequences for the conveniences of a microwave-ready diet, and decide for yourself if they’re worth it. If that interests you, try to learn more about it. And if it’s something that you agree with, make small choices where you can that promote a shorter food chain and cut out some of the chemicals and preservatives that are hidden in so many foods. And that’s my schtick: Just think about what you’re eating and make sure it’s good enough to put in your body.

Now let’s get back to cooking!

If you are interested in learning more about some of these issues, here are two places I’d recommend starting:

  • Slow Food is a non-profit, eco-gastronomic member-supported organization that was founded in 1989 to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world. To do that, Slow Food brings together pleasure and responsibility, and makes them inseparable.
  • Michel Pollan is a James Beard Award winner, New York Times Bestseller, and UC Berkeley professor. His books examine the current food supply chain and consumption patterns of America. Start with The Omnivore’s Dilemma or In Defense of Food.

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