Stripped Carbs: The Emperor’s New Clothes

I promised a friend that I would write another post about stripped carbs and processed edibles. Sometimes stripped carbs are called simple carbs, but there’s nothing simple about them. Stripped carbs include white flour, white rice, corn starch, corn syrup, sugar, fruit juice, and beer. It’s not that you can’t eat them at all; it’s that Americans are drowning in them.

In nature, carbohydrates virtually always come with an intact fiber matrix. Whether fruit, legume, vegetable, whole grain, or even sugar, the quintessential stripped carb, stripped carbs start as an intact carb, such as dates, beets, sugar cane, or fruit. The fiber and germ are removed, or stripped, and all that’s left is white powder. It’s not a coincidence that white flour looks exactly like corn starch and powdered sugar. The processed edibles industry has removed most of the essential elements from the original foodstuff, and all that’s left is a pile of powder.

Here are some examples. White flour starts out as whole grains of wheat, with bran and germ intact. White rice is “polished,” meaning that it is stripped of its husk. Corn starch and corn syrup are derived from corn. Most sugar is extracted from sugar cane, less often from dates or beets. Fruit juice starts as fruit. I like to think of beer as “liquid bread.”

Perhaps you’ve seen the term “enriched” flour in an ingredient list. What does that mean? “Enriched” flour is stripped flour to which minerals and vitamins (mainly iron and B vitamins) have been added so as to prevent anemia and other nutritional deficiencies. How did we figure out that stripped carbs did not nourish the way intact grains do? The hard way — after a great many sick patients presented themselves for medical care. “Enriched” is the industry’s term, not mine. It would also be accurate to call it “stripped flour with B vitamins and iron, but still without the fiber or the oil-rich germ.”

You may have heard of “fortified” flour. “Fortified” flour is stripped flour to which folate has been added. Folate is one of the B vitamins. A deficiency of folate is the cause of a particular class of birth defects called neural tube defects, of which spina bifida is the best known. Beginning in the 1990’s, approximately 20 years after a causal link was first suspected between spina bifida and a folate deficiency, the U.S. Congress finally mandated that folate be added to flour. The word chosen to describe flour to which folate was added was “fortified.” And, yes, the prevalence of neural tube deficiencies fell after that. But fortified flour still contains no fiber or germ.

Shortly after rice stripped of its husk was first introduced into the food supply in Southeast Asia, a processed called “polishing,” a significant rise was noted in the numbers of deaths from a disease called beri-beri. Tens of thousands of people died. Beri-beri is caused by a deficiency of thiamine, which was, not surprisingly, present in the husks that had been removed. This is why white rice is now “enriched” with thiamine, among other micronutrients.

Corn starch and corn syrup are used extensively in the processed edibles industry. Actually, that’s an understatement. It would be more accurate to say that the processed edibles industry is virtually dependent on the presence of corn starch and syrup. Americans began to eat large amounts of corn starch and corn syrup in the 1970s, soon after the industry identified corn syrup as a significantly less costly alternative to sugar.

Everything is relative, however. What is less costly in one way turns out to be extremely expensive in another. Beginning in the 1970s, obesity rates in the U.S. began to soar. Whenever I travel overseas, I obsessively check ingredient lists on product packages on the grocery shelves. I have noticed that whereas virtually all American candy and baked items are made with corn syrup, the candy, cakes, and bread sold overseas are made not with corn syrup but rather with sugar. There is less obesity. The obesity epidemic is multifactorial, and not due simply to corn syrup. But it is a contributing factor.  

The American diet is packed with stripped carbs: Mini-frosto-hoho-choco’s for breakfast. Coffee-cake muffins. Single-serving yogurt with 4-5 teaspoons of corn syrup. Doughnuts, crackers, and brownies for snacks. Sandwiches for lunch, with corn chips. And then pasta for dinner. You’re eating stripped carbs all day. Am I saying you should never again eat anything sweet? No, absolutely not. Everyone should enjoy a treat now and then. Maybe it’s a cookie and milk every afternoon, or a slice of pie once a week. But that’s not what’s happening.

I don’t know exactly how much stripped carb you can tolerate. That depends entirely on you, and you’re going to have to figure it out. It depends on your metabolism, your genetics, your activity level, your stress levels. Which is better for you — leftovers or oatmeal? Which is better for your oatmeal — maple syrup, raisins, or peanut butter? You can figure this out.

Remember that it’s not carbohydrate per se that’s the problem. It’s stripped carb, and that’s something entirely different.


Fun is Fine, But it’s Not Food

There’s a big difference between nutrition and entertainment. Food is nourishing. It’s what we’re eating when we choose stuff that’s loaded with color and fiber, such as vegetables and beans, nuts, fruits, seeds, and whole grains. Fun, on the other hand, is nothing like food. Fun items (which we tend to call by interesting names like “junk food” or “fast food”) are made with products like white flour, white rice, corn syrup, corn starch, commodity oils (soy, corn, cottonseed) and, of course, sugar, which you find in practically everything that’s ultraprocessed. Continue reading


The Commodity Compromise

In life, one always has to choose between quantity and quality. If your goal is to obtain an item of the highest possible quality, then it doesn’t matter how much you get. Like a sample of uranium. When it’s quality you’re after, it doesn’t matter whether you end up with a microgram or a kilogram. The issue of its purity is not negotiable, so the amount is secondary. But when it’s quantity you seek, it doesn’t matter whether the end result is purity or perfidy, perfect or problematic. Continue reading



Chocolate Mousse

What follows is a true story. It really happened, and you can draw your own conclusions.

Just over 13 years ago, on a snowy evening in January 2003, my daughter and I went out and brought home the sweetest, gentlest, 8-week-old Labrador Retriever puppy. She was a chocolate lab, and so we named her Mousse. Mousse played ball; Mousse cuddled with the children; Mousse helped me weed the garden; Mousse stole food from the kitchen table when she thought no one was looking; Mousse hung out with the chickens and enjoyed visiting with our friends and neighbors, both human and canine. Mousse became family, and all was well. Continue reading


The Trans Fat Ban

This past summer, some 50 years after concerns were first raised about a possible link between trans fats and heart attacks, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that partially hydrogenated oils, the primary dietary source of trans fats in processed food items, are no longer “generally recognized as safe” in human food. Processed food manufacturers will have three years to reformulate their products or request an exemption. This action is expected to prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks a year. Multiply that by 50 years. Continue reading


The Real Meaning of “Breakfast Cereal”

Let’s talk about something I said a few weeks ago: It started with the term “breakfast cereal.” I put it in quotes for reasons that I’ll get to below. I also made the point that the term “breakfast cereal” reminds me of phrases like “TV dinners,” and “Lunchables,” whatever that means. Whenever marketers tell me what to eat and when to eat it, that’s a very bad sign. Actually it’s more of a clue. And that’s the subject of today’s post. Continue reading


A Commodity-Based Diet

A few months ago Michael @Ruhlman lent me a captivating new book written by Chef Dan Barber and called The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. In 2009 Time Magazine named @DanBarber one of the 100 most influential people in the world. I’m a little bit chagrined to admit that I am still reading this book, primarily because it makes me think so hard that I can only get in a chapter at a time before I have to set it aside and think about what the author just said. Continue reading


On #Commodity and #Terroir

Today we’re going to talk about commodities. What is a commodity? When goods and services are traded on the grand scale for other goods and services, they become “commodities.” One characteristic of a commodity is that its price is determined not by quality, but by demand. The greater the demand, the greater the market. That’s what determines whether an item is a commodity. Continue reading