Food, in the end, in our own tradition, is something holy. It’s not about nutrients and calories. It’s about sharing. It’s about honesty. It’s about identity. —Louise Fresco
The little ones in our house have become food critics. They have taken to watching Food Channel re-runs on Netflix. Things such as Cupcake Wars and Worst Cook in America can keep them occupied for several seconds at a time, between bursts of body-slamming each other into the couch. On one hand, the shows have ignited their interest in food and cooking, especially in regard to cupcakes. On the other hand, however, it has made them much more picky about things that six- and seven-year-olds really shouldn’t notice, such as plating and food presentation.
Last night, as I served the little darlings a dinner of baked cod with a wheat cracker crust and steamed veggies, little man looked up from his plate and informed me, “I really think you could have crushed the crackers more; there are some pieces there that are really too large.”
He’s lucky I let him eat.
Knowing what to eat seems to become increasingly more difficult with every day. The Nestlé company issued yet another recall yesterday, this time for frozen pizza, Lean Cuisine, and various Stouffer’s Lasagna. The problem? Glass in the spinach. I’m still trying to figure out how glass gets in spinach in the first place, but then, I never have really understood how mass production of frozen food works, either. While frozen is, admittedly, a wonderful convenience on those nights when I’m exhausted, I would still rather order out for fresh pizza than settle for frozen. We just don’t consume that much of it because the taste isn’t there.
Putting healthy food on our plates doesn’t really seem like that big a challenge, in my opinion. We typically know our schedules in advance, we can look at the weather report and guess which days are going to be physically challenging for me, and we plan our menus accordingly. During the summer and early fall, we tilt heavily toward fresh veggies, especially things we grow in our own garden. During the winter and early Spring, before things have a chance to grow, we rely more on things I can put in the slow cooker of the morning and not have to worry about. Eating reasonably healthy isn’t difficult for us.
However, we are fortunate to not have a lot of restrictions on what we eat, either. None of us have serious food allergies or sensitivities, so I don’t have to worry about making substitutions for ingredients that are natural. Not everyone has that advantage. There are millions of people who are diabetic and have to avoid sugars, for example, and finding substitutes that work in various recipes can really be a huge challenge, especially when everything artificial seems to have issues.
The latest sweetener to run into problems is Splenda. A study published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health this week found “increased incidence (p < 0.01) of hematopoietic neoplasias in males” when sucralose, the primary ingredient in Splenda, was injected into rat feed on a regular basis. In other words, regular consumption of Splenda causes cancer. This study feeds into a long-standing claim against the sweetener that, until now, has had no basis. A 2015 article on Snopes lists such cancer claims as false. Splenda, which, by the way, is owned and manufactured by Indianapolis-based Heartland Food Products Group, was quick to dismiss the study, stating:
Sucralose has been extensively researched, with more than 110 studies conducted over a 20-year period. These studies include rigorous testing to specifically identify any potential for causing cancer. Worldwide regulatory authorities, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the European Food Safety Authority, Health Canada and the World Health Organization, have reviewed these studies and confirm that results show no link between sucralose and cancer. The U.S. National Cancer Institute also supports this conclusion.
I’m not one to decry “artificial” foods that are designed to help people with food-related diseases, such as diabetes and Crones, be able to enjoy relatively normal lives and eat the dishes they have traditionally enjoyed. Every food contains chemicals, folks. Most chemicals are naturally occurring and to the extent they can be extracted and used to help people, I’m all for that and can even encourage further experimentation and exploration. Natural foods can kill even more quickly than artificial ones if ingested by the wrong people.
What’s more likely to cause danger is the way we prepare our food, not the food itself. For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that over-cooking potatoes, whether fried or baked, can increase amounts of naturally-occurring acrylamide, which really does create a variety of health issues. Understand, this problem occurs even with organically grown potatoes. The chemical is there regardless of how the potato is grown or harvested. What makes the difference is the length of cooking time.
We have a choice. We can either live in fear of everything we might want to put in our mouths, or we can use some good old common sense when choosing and preparing our food. There is very little that is actually bad for you in reasonable doses. Yes, some of the chemicals that occur naturally in our food can also be used in plastics or household cleaners, but the proportions are so outrageously different as to not be comparable. One can die just as quickly from so-called “clean” food when it is prepared incorrectly or smothered in excessive fats and sugars. Eating an all-natural diet doesn’t help one bit if one is consuming 7,000 calories in a single meal. The rule of moderation still applies for the vast majority of healthy people.
If you’re having difficulty comprehending all this, or don’t know who to believe, maybe you just need to eat more chocolate. Chocolate makes you smarter. Run with that. We’ll all have a better day.