Nowadays there’s a lot of talk about “real” food. What is “real” food? It’s food that has not been processed, refined, stripped, polished, fortified, enriched or otherwise modified. It’s basically fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, grains, fish, eggs, dairy products, and meats, like poultry, beef, and game, and including all the wonderful variations of these things that our brains are capable of inventing. If it’s not food, then it’s manufactured calories. This post is for helping you figure out how to tell the difference.
It’s not that you can’t eat any manufactured calories; it’s just that they don’t nourish you. I want you to be a well nourished soul who sometimes likes to be entertained by edible items that aren’t really food. But I don’t want you to take anyone else’s word about which is which, so here are the guidelines I teach my patients.
First, if it’s real food, then you probably don’t need to be told. As in “processed American cheese food.” Talk about truth in advertising. If you have to be told it’s food, it probably isn’t.
Products with names that have nothing whatsoever to do with food are also food-like items. Miracle Whip comes to mind. Or Cool Whip. These food-like products contain a variety of substances that are anything but food. And they aren’t just in food-like products. A while back, I was stunned to discover a food-like substance in the ingredient list of a container of brand-name cottage cheese. The offending agent? Food starch. See above.
Why is there food starch in cottage cheese? It makes cottage cheese thicker, and thicker seems richer, which is especially important if the cottage cheese is made from low-fat milk. You can also find food starch in Cheerios, long touted as a healthy breakfast choice. It even has a reputation as an ideal snack choice for babies who are working on their hand-eye coordination. As you can tell, I am not a fan.
What’s my beef with Cheerios? Check the ingredient list. First is whole oats. [‘Whole,’ ‘hale,’‘heal,’ and ‘health’ come from the same root word.] So far, so good. Then comes — food starch. Uh-oh. Then modified food starch. What’s the difference between “modified food starch” and regular “food starch”? Though common sense tells you they are similar, food manufacturers actually differentiate between them. Plus, if they were not separate, there would be more food starch than whole oats, and food starch would have to be listed first, which would be bad for business. The fourth ingredient, incidentally, is sugar.
Many words have been coopted to make processed, manufactured food-style products more appealing. Like “buttery,” “creamy,” “chocolatey.” When were butter, cream and chocolate replaced by flavor substitutes with similar but not identical names? It’s no accident that America’s favorite after-dinner pastime seems to be cruising the kitchen cabinets. That’s what happens when your body isn’t nourished by real food.
Real food hasn’t changed in at least a millennium or two, so ask yourself if your great-grandparents would have recognized a product as food. Peanut-butter crackers? No. But peanut butter? Yes, absolutely. Coffee whiteners and “liquid delights”? Never.
The list of “convenience foods” is long and scary. What does that term even mean? But cheese sticks, nuts, apples, sunflower seeds, snow peas, pumpkin seeds? Perfect. And dried fruit, the ultimate convenience food? Delicious, nutritious, and portable. Don’t worry about the sugar content unless you are diabetic. Fruit is not what’s driving the obesity epidemic in this country.