I have been trying to write a book about food for a decade now. I have nearly given up. The science is changing daily because our knowledge is still evolving. Every day something new pops up and it makes me go off down another scientific rabbit hole it takes weeks to emerge from. However, after studying food science and practicing food engineering in the halls of international food companies, I have come to a few conclusions I’d like to share.
Searching for BigFoot
We all know how one week a food is the “SuperFood” and the next week the very same food, formerly known as a “SuperFood” will kill you, according to the “experts”. In this case it’s the opposite, the conventional wisdom – based only on early guesses about saturated fat and heart disease – was wrong. Things change faster than Chris Christie’s presidential chances. Why is that?
Nutrition is a young science. That’s why. How young? Man had unleashed atomic energy on the world before we had even discovered all the B vitamins.
The Answer in Front of Us All Along
In our effort to find that silver bullet or magic pill, we have completely lost our way. We have deconstructed our food to such a point that we can’t see dinner for the anti-oxidants. What has kept humans alive and so successful for millennia has been our ability to craft cuisine out of sustenance. We already know what to eat. Why do I know that? Because we’ve been doing it for thousands of years.
Cuisine. It is that specific combination of foods that provides complete nutrition because there is no such thing as a “Superfood”. A “Superfood” is the culinary equivalent of the Abominable Snowman, the Yeti and the Loch Ness Monster rolled up into one supermonster. We keep searching for it, so many believe in it, but nobody has actually found it yet. What we already have and keep throwing to the wayside in our restless (and expensive) search for the culinary Bigfoot, are the wonderful traditions of cultures all over the world that already combine foods in specific ways so we can get everything we need.
The Value of Tradition
Although I am of Italian, German and Swiss descent and grew up in a completely Irish town, (I can make manicotti that will levitate off your plate, homemade Amaretto chocolate covered cherries and a decent shepherd’s pie), I actually grew up eating homemade Chinese food. My father spent many hours enjoying Chinatown in New York City – visiting every little restaurant he could find to get ideas on what to make at home. I was his gardener and his sous chef. I spent most of my Saturdays in the kitchen with Dad deseeding and cutting bell peppers and bamboo shoots and water chestnuts. I know the heavenly scent of toasted sesame oil and our cabinets were filled with chile paste and cloud ear mushrooms. To me, comfort was a steaming bowl of my father’s homemade hot and sour soup. I learned how to roll an egg roll and what a star anise was. I was fascinated with the different types of Chinese cuisine – Szechuan, and Hunan were my favorites. I was also fascinated with my Grandmother’s cooking. She had inspired my Dad, but her forte was homemade pasta, and all things Italian. She trained me in the art of pasta, which I can make without a machine. And so after becoming a trained and then practicing food scientist later and then leaving the food industry, I came back full circle to my fascination with the culture of cuisine and how each of these collections of tradition and recipes work synergistically to help us thrive. Understanding what an anti-oxidant is, is cool, but understanding why a Korean meal starts with Kim Chi, or why we have always served sauer kraut with sausages or why Kosher kitchens don’t serve meat with dairy, is even more interesting to me.
There is no Magic Number
We don’t eat specific foods. We eat recipes combined into meals. It is easy to know how many calories and nutrients are in an apple, but how many are in your Aunt Mabel’s apple pie and how exactly do they interact with the other foods you just ate? The more complicated the food, the more difficult it is to count calories or understand nutrition. Which is why so many succumb to the urge to buy a processed food with a number on the label. This is a problem. To really lose weight, it is helpful to know how to cook. Otherwise you are dependent on one number someone else slapped on a brightly colored plastic package. Foods can’t be reduced to calories alone. You can’t reduce a food to one component any more than you can reduce the nutrition to just one number in a simplistic thumbs up, thumbs down scoring system. And so how do you make sure you get what you need? We have to turn back to our collective memories of traditional cuisine.
What is the Mediterranean Diet Anyway? Good Question.
I find it interesting that the Mediterranean diet is always touted but very few of the “experts’ even know what that means. It is a catchall phrase that they appear to mold to their own ends. To the “experts”, who think dairy is the poison of mankind, they will say that the Mediterranean diet is great because it is “low in dairy”, conveniently forgetting Italians love their full fat water Buffalo mozzarella, their whole milk ricotta and their pistachio gelato. They also conveniently forget that sheeps milk Feta cheese is a huge part of Greek cuisine. In talking about how wonderful and healthy Indian vegetarian cuisine is, they forget that Indian food often uses yogurt and cheese, and has a revered status for butter fat – called Ghee which is considered a health food. I love butter so much, I understand why cows are sacred. “Experts” will turn the Mediterranean diet or a vegetarian one into whatever suites their particular theory. None of the historic cuisines that have sustained us for thousands of years is actually a true vegan one. They are all different but they work by combining foods.
How Humans Really Eat
For example, in Ireland, potatoes are a staple, they are a starch, but they also provide Vitamin C. So an Irish cook would make a dish of buttermilk, with potatoes provide calcium, vitamins A, D, C and some protein as well as fat and carbohydrate. It wasn’t fancy, but it worked. In northern climes, fermenting cabbage also produces Vitamin C. A meat sausage and a serving of sauer kraut is the equivalent. Another chef could use chick peas and potatoes with yogurt. Protein, vitamin C, carbohydrates, fat, etc. The trick is in the combining – which was developed and tested and proven over thousands of years. We can’t just come along, declare one food a superfood and be done with it. We are probably missing something. We must be.
You also can’t simply reduce Italian food down to olive oil or tomatoes, to be the Superfood in the cuisine. Ask an Italian what they eat and they will say “everything”. We love artichokes, and asparagus, and red roasted peppers and garlic – lots of garlic, and onions, and marinated mushrooms and romaine salad (which we eat after the meal) and tomatoes, yes, but many wax rhapsodic about broccoli rabe, and escarole and cannellini beans. Italians love food. ALL kinds. The only common thread is that we will eat pretty much any part of the animal, every part of the plant but it has to be fresh, fresh, fresh and simple, simple, simple. Italians love their pork. They have dishes devoted just to pork belly fat. Dishes devoted to full fat dairy. They love their meats. They love it ALL. In essence, the Mediterranean diet is many things – but I think the most important takeaway is that it is fresh, and relatively unprocessed. But we need to not generalize simply because the Mediterranean diet is varied because each region has its own specific combinations of ingredients that worked together based on seasonal availability.
Jumping to Poor Conclusions
The news this morning was about “salt” and obesity. I find it mindboggling that the “experts” are again making huge leaps of faulty logic. Salty foods are typically the most processed. How can they possibly conclude that it is only sodium in junkfood when processed foods contain many compounds in addition to the sodium based preservatives and additives previously unknown to the human anatomy?
Little Things Matter
And now the latest piece of the puzzle is gut bacteria, the microbes that make a home in our digestive tract. Even if we can’t make a vitamin, or an anti-inflammatory compound, these little friends can. But they need good care and feeding. If we are eating foods that bacteria won’t touch – because of all the new preservatives (like those found in the “salt”-obesity study), then how will these little house guests survive? Probiotics is a great buzz word lately. People think they can eat junk food, pop a probiotic pill and everything will be great. However even microbes need to eat.
It is interesting how many cultures use onions and garlic to begin a recipe. Now we know that onions and garlic may not have a lot of nutrition for human cells, although they do have flavor, but they are the preferred foods of the microbes in our digestive tract. We are feeding them when we use certain foods in our recipes. So, this is also another thing to consider when we study cuisine. Providing PRE-biotics too. Another thing figured out already by our grandmothers. What if the “Mediterranean diet or Asian diet has nothing to do with olive oil or soy and everything to do with the fact that these diets are high in foods now known to be pre-biotics? The foods our gut bacteria love the most. Onions, garlic, asparagus, and artichokes or vegetables and fermented cabbage. I haven’t even touched on the diet of farm animals and how microbes affect their health and in turn ours.
We Need Fewer Nutrition “Experts” and More Real Scientists
See? That is why we keep getting nutrition advice wrong. We still need more independent research not paid for by the food industry, and the folks who hang their hats on theories developed long before we had any data at all, are afraid to admit they may have wasted their careers giving the wrong advice. The “experts” need to stop, take a breath, and think, before they comment on new data and say everyone should still follow their old wrong advice no matter what, because to do otherwise is too darn scary, even though they have a terrible track record of being wrong about pretty much everything for the last 60 years. Examples below:
Coconut Oil (saturated fats)
Cigarettes (they thought we forgot about this one)
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.