Keepin’ it real

I can count on one hand the number of times per year I go into a conventional grocery store. The longer this trend has gone on, the more I find that I can’t stand the places. Why? A screamingly huge gap in food philosophies (mine and theirs), for one, and pure sensory overload, on the other.

Just like three days in Vegas is about enough for me, 90 seconds in a “regular” grocery store is enough for me.

So it was with much consternation that I set foot into a Safeway this weekend. Costco has failed to carry any sort of onions for the last three weeks, and I was totally out. I was nowhere near a farmers market, and I’ve refused to shop at my local “natural market” since they stopped carrying raw milk (my strong feelings about the issue precluded me from making an exception, even when faced with Safeway as an alternative).

Anyhoo, the moment I walked through those automatic doors, I felt that oh-so-special suffocated, overwhelmed feeling that comes from being in the midst of so many “food” products. I beelined for the produce department, found my onions, then got caught in a labrynth as I tried to find the canned green chiles  that were on sale. Why does anyone need to have 10 brands of diced green chiles to chose from? Seriously?

I could not get out of there fast enough.

I read an article a few years ago in Utne Reader about how in Sweden, stores don’t carry 50 kinds of bath soap and 27 types of yogurt. There are maybe three, and they are all excellent quality. People can shop without being overwhelmed, and they go home happy with what they bought. What a concept! That’s one reason I do so much of my food shopping at Costco: I buy and eat a lot of produce, so the jumbo packages of lettuce, apples, etc. are right up my alley. As for the rest, the Swedish model fairly applies.

But my main beef with Safeway and its ilk is not the overwhelming variety, but the fact that most of what they sell is not food, it’s products. (And I am talking about the “edible” stuff, not the paper products and household cleansers. Those have to be products.)

I look through the store circulars that come in the mail, just for fun, and I rarely see anything I would consider buying. Here’s my mental conversation: “Product, product, product, meat raised on a feedlot, product, product, I can’t believe they’re marketing that to kids, product, product, that is NOT healthy, product, better price at Costco, product, product, product.”

To say I am passionate about eating real food is, well, and understatement. I want to know what it is I am ingesting and putting into my body. Eating real, whole or minimally processed food is one of the keys to achieving optimal health.

There are so many reasons to avoid fast food, junk food and other heavily processed foods as much as possible. I’ll just hit some of the highlights:

  • Real food doesn’t have artificial flavors, colors and preservatives. I’m all for science, but should we really be eating things that came straight from a lab?
  • Real food doesn’t have added sugar, salt and fat. This is huge, since these three things are killing us. The evidence is mounting that added sugars (soda is a big culprit) are steering people toward heart disease. And processed foods, not the salt shaker, are largely responsible for the sodium overload of the average American.
  • Real food has real nutrients. You can try to isolate this vitamin or that mineral all you want and put it in a pill, but the fact is that as much as we know about how micronutrients affect our health, there’s much more we don’t know. That said, it appears that it may be the interaction between various vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, flavonoids and other nutrients yet to be identified in natural foods that gives us what we need. It’s about synergy, and you can’t put that in a pill. Modern industrial food processing techniques destroy many of these natural substances, which may contribute do disease.
  • Real food is safer food. Yes, there have been outbreaks of food-borne illness on spinach and other real foods, but the risk from processed food is much greater, because of the sheer size of the ingredient list. In March, for example, a flavor enhancer made in a Las Vegas factory was found to be contaminated with salmonella.
  • Real food takes longer to chew. (Well, sometimes.) Here’s the problem with processed food. It’s processed. It might as well be prechewed, it’s so easy to eat quickly. And guess what, when you can eat something quickly, you can eat a lot more of it before you realize, “Hey, I’m getting kind of full.” Think fast: What take longer to eat, an apple or a Twinkie? Exactly.
  • Real food tastes better. If you’re used to a mostly processed diet, eating fresh foods might take some adjusting. But once you get there, you’ll appreciate real flavor. Why would anyone eat something with artificial strawberry flavor when they can have a real, fresh strawberry?

Here’s a photo of my pantry (or as much as I could fit in a frame):

The most processed foods in there (and actually not visible) are a box of Kashi Autumn Wheat cereal (which I will not replace once our supply is deleted) and some whole wheat pasta, which we eat maybe once a month. Other than that, its dried beans, grains, some canned goods (organic tomatoes, coconut milk, chiles, beans, tuna, salmon, artichoke hearts), several types of vinegar, condiments (mustard, tapenade, curry pastes, wasabi, hot sauce, sesame oil, natural mayo, unsweetened cocoa powder), dried fruits, nut and seed butters, tea, salt and pepper, sauerkraut and pickles, shredded coconut and sucanat (dehydrated cane juice).

All of these foods are processed, but minimally. And they serve to enhance the fresh, and freshly frozen foods that are the stars of our household menus. Just wait until I talk about what’s in my freezer.