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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What Are We Eating?

I wanted to make a simple supper for my family last night.  Soup and bread.  No problem, right?

Well, a normal person would go out and buy a can of Pillsbury Flaky Biscuits and a few cans of Campbell's Chunky New England Clam Chowder, and have supper ready in about 30 minutes.

But as I'm sure you've figured out by now, I'm not normal.

I measured the correct amounts of milk, honey, eggs, butter, flour, salt, and yeast into my bread machine, waited nearly two hours for those ingredients to be kneaded and allowed to rise, then shaped the dough by hand into pinwheel rolls.  Next I brushed melted butter on the rolls, then left them to rise again for another 45 minutes.  After that I was finally able to put them in the oven to bake for about 30 minutes.

I also chopped two cups of onions, peeled and diced six small potatoes, cooked and diced four ounces of bacon, then put all that together with milk, heavy cream, and, of course clams (canned, not fresh--I do have my limits after all!).  Between preparation and cooking, the chowder took about three hours.

Why did I do all that?

I'm not a contender for Mother-of-the-Year.  I'm not a masochist.  I'm not looking for bragging rights.  (OK, maybe a little on the bragging rights.)

I did it because of partially hydrogenated soybean oil, xanthan gum, TBHQ, monosodium glutamate (MSG), modified food starch, flavoring, sodium phosphate, and succinic acid.  These are the things my family avoided ingesting because I didn't go with the 30-minute supper.

Some of these are simple chemical processes that have been proven (or at least are widely believed) to be completely benign to humans.  However some of them aren't.

We've all heard the warnings about avoiding trans fats, which means avoiding partially hydrogenated oils.  Consumption of trans fats can increase the risk of coronary heart disease.  Furthermore, the process of hydrogenation typically involves the use of an alkene, and the simplest and most commonly used alkene is ethylene.  Ethylene is listed with the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) as a class 3 carcinogen.  Granted, a class 3 carcinogen has a relatively low risk of actually causing cancer, as it's defined as being "not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans."  Compare that to classes 1 and 2, which are "definitely" and "probably" carcinogenic, respectively.  However "not classifiable" is a lot different from "probably not," which is class 4.  With as much as we still don't know about cancer, I'd prefer not to take my chances.

TBHQ, or tert-Butylhydroquinone, is also used as a corrosion inhibitor in biodeisel.  In addition to being a food additive, it's added to varnishes, lacquers, resins, and oil field additives as well.  Now that's multitasking!

Modified food starch is a process that's used to thicken foods and make wallpaper adhesive.  Sure, I can see how that could be useful.

What can I say about the ingredient 'flavoring?'  What exactly is that, anyway?

And finally, sodium phosphate, great as a food additive, cleaning agent, stain remover, and degreaser.  Yummy!

Maybe you believe that God designed humanity to live in harmony with his creation, providing all that we need for sustenance in the produce and animal life of the earth.  Or maybe you believe that we are the products of billions of years of evolution.  Either way, the fact remains that the human body was not designed to require the services of a trained chemist in order to meet our nutritional needs.

Yes, it took more work to make the rolls and chowder from scratch.  But I also doubled the recipe for the chowder, and we froze the remainder, so my next simple soup and bread supper will be a lot simpler.  And the rolls?  The ones I made last night are my husband's favorite, and I wanted to make up for having him do the single parent thing all weekend while I was away at a retreat, so I decided it was worth the extra effort.  But I also have a recipe for cornbread, which takes about 35 minutes (preparation and cooking) that he also likes.  Less beloved by my husband but adored by my kids are my baking powder biscuits, which take about 45 minutes total.  Both are more work than the Pillsbury bread-in-a-can, but, unlike what Pillsbury has to offer, in neither case do I need to Google any of the ingredients to find out what they are.

I realize they're called 'convenience' foods for a reason, but it's important to ask the question, is it worth it?  Ever since Americans began eating more convenient, prepackaged, highly processed foods, we've become significantly unhealthier as a population.  The exact reasons and relationships elude us, but the correlation stands.  There are several other things I would have liked to have accomplished yesterday afternoon, but weighed against the health and wellbeing of myself and my family, none of them were important enough for me to turn my family into a chemistry experiment.

Life is messy, it's complicated, and it's full of tough choices.  One of my choices is to try to keep my food as uncomplicated as possible.

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