Saturday, August 21, 2010

Pollan's Poison

Hello from Victoria, Texas. That's right, I've moved again. I recently moved here from Rio Rancho, N.M. to pursue a career at their newspaper, the Victoria Advocate. I dig it. I work on the copy desk as a copy editor putting in the grueling hours after everyone has left the office already. Nah, it's not that bad. I come to work at 2 p.m. and leave around 11ish – depending on the day's news and the shiftwork.

I've been here for about a month now and things are going smoothly. I cook my own meals and am thoroughly enjoying that. I've had the opportunity to put together some recipes that I've had on the back burner for a while. I didn't pack a television so all I do to entertain myself before I go to work is read. Since I moved out here, I think I've read at least four books. For me, that is very good. A very good friend of mine, John, bought me two books by Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food and An Eater's Manual, for my birthday and I have been enjoying the chance to catch up on some much needed reading.

Last year I read Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and loved it. In the midst of the market's struggle to revert to unprocessed foods and and organic farming Pollan seeks the answer to one of the most basic of questions that we as humans constantly have to ask: What should we eat? The book was really well written and I enjoyed following him in his adventures.

The following book he wrote was In Defense of Food, which delves deeper into the questions that surfaced during his adventures to the feedlot, the corn fields and so on. Well, I'm not done with the book yet – I'm about half-way through it –but already he has brought up some points that make me think more than twice about what I am putting in my mouth and throwing into the pot on the stove.

A recurring theme the two books cover is the fact that much of what the U.S. consumers eat is comprised of corn- and soy-based products. The animals that we eat are fed corn, the sugar we have in our soft drinks is corn-based, the oils that we cook with are corn- or soy-based, etc. The vast majority of what we are eating these days is made – even packaged – of one of the two products. The problem with that is that the processes that the foods we eat are no longer as healthy for us as they were. They lack certain nutrients that our bodies need. And despite the fact that nutritionist and food scientists, dressed in their white lab coats made of Polypropylene (not natural fibers), are altering the genetics to include some of the valuable nutrients that we need or adding vitamins and minerals to the things that we eat on an almost daily basis – milk, bread and cheeses – food is not as nutritious for us as things used to be decades ago.

I mean if you think about it, corn today has gone through years of genetic alterations and is no longer as vitamin or mineral bearing as it once was. There was a point in corn's long history where you could pluck an ear of corn right off a stalk and eat it then and there. Nowadays, it would be inedible – or at least close to it.

Aside from that, the books lay out a set of guidelines to follow to help make sure that what you're eating is something that you should be eating. In Food Rules, Pollan lays out around 60 rules (I think its 63) that are easy follow and simple enough to commit to memory. He explains that they are more like guidelines and don't need to be followed strictly, but at least considered. A few of the ones that I have remembered easily are:

– Don't eat anything your (great- or great, great-) grandmother wouldn't recognize: His example is Go-Gurt. I don't know if yogurt is popular in the Philippines as it is, but, nonetheless, I don't thing my lola would know what to do with it. In paraphrasing Pollan, "she might mistaken it for a tube of toothpaste if she saw it."

– Don't eat anything with ingredients that are unfamiliar to you or that you are unable to pronounce: A good way to visualize this is to imagine what goes into your food. At home, you don't add polysorbate 60 or cellulose gum (two ingredients in the indestructible Twinkie) to anything you cook, right? And, and most things that you do add to your meals are things that you can pronounce – for the most part, unless its something that you bought in the international foods aisle.

– Do eat wild foods, with consideration to those that are endangered or in danger of becoming endangered: Wild fish, game and plants have most likely fed on or been fed things found in natural rather than processed feed or grains or chemical fertilizers, which makes them less tainted by the effects of processed foods and influence of mankind's constant effort to make things more efficient, nutrient-wise and the time it takes to raise or grow them.

–Eat meals: It may sound easy, but according to his research and the research of others Americans have created this idea of a fourth meal. Not Taco Bell's idea of a fourth meal but instead the act of constant grazing. People eat constantly between meals, whether it's a bag of chips, followed by a candy bar, followed by a soft drink – you get my point.

The list goes on, but those are just a few of the good ones that I think make sense and are easy enough to follow. On another note, I must admit how much this has ruined my experience at the grocery store.

With his easy-to-follow guidelines, I find myself cringing at the sight of the random ingredients thrown into foods that I may have purchased no more than two weeks ago. I've fallen prey to the "nutrition-ism" society that he covers in his books. But in a good way. I'm not picking up foods that make health claims, or are endorsed by health organizations and associations, but rather I am purchasing things that are grown in nature – at least to as much a degree that I can. I may shop at the local H-E-B, but I am buying more perishable foods from fruits and veggies to meats and seafood.

This new wave of thinking has also given me the opportunity to tinker with recipes that I have never had the chance to try. I made a rad seafood soup the other day with catfish and mussels and even roasted up some turnips with potatoes for my dinner a few nights ago. And trust me,turnips and parsnips are two vegetables that you would ever find in my parents' refrigerator, so I get to branch out.

Along with this new school of thought, is a second job.

Wednesday through Sunday do my thing at the newspaper, building the pages and all that jazz, and Friday and Saturday nights I work the graveyard shift at the local Denny's. That's right, Denny's – of all places to work. And as my good friend John has to point out, it makes ma hypocrite – just a bit. In my defense, I told John that even though I work there, it's not like I'm there telling people not to eat there, and that the food is bad for them. I am simply working there for the extra cash and serving them what they want to eat. It is their life, and their diet, right? Perhaps.

However, John does have a valid point. I could very well be working at a restaurant that serves fresh vegetables and not the kind that come from a vacuum-sealed bag, or biscuits that are frozen and then cooked in the oven. What can I say, my schedule wasn't too flexible and there aren't a lot of restaurants to work with out here.

Since reading Pollan's books, I did have a chance to look at the labels on the different foodstuffs that the kitchen prepares and it's pretty bad. Let me just say that the hash browns that everyone, and their mother, so often orders are not just potatoes. Sorry to break it to you hon, but there are more than five on unpronounceable, and incredibly unfamiliar, ingredients on the box. And not to mention the oil they use to cook it in is not the healthiest either. I wouldn't be bursting your bubble if I told you it wasn't extra virgin olive oil or butter, would I?

Anyhow, it has been interesting revelation. And with any sort of change in lifestyle, it takes quite a bit of effort to lock it down. I have to admit that sometimes I stray from Pollan's Food Rules, but I am only human. I also live in a society that is enveloped by convenience. There are fast food joints on every block, sometimes encompassing the entire block, there are convenience foods and assorted foodstuffs in every aisle and beckoning every purchaser as they peruse the grocery stores. You have quick-marinades, microwaveable rice, oatmeal, pasta, sauces, etc., instant this and that, and you can bet that most of those things will either, never perish (another rule: Eat perishable foods.) or could last years without damaging the item's integrity.

It makes you think about where we're headed when it comes to what we put in our bodies for nourishment whether it be food or supplements.

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