A few weeks ago, while reading Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, I started perusing the ingredient lists on the back of the various food products that live in our kitchen. Honey Nut Cheerios (healthy, right?): sugar, modified corn starch, honey, brown sugar syrup, salt, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, tripotassium phosphate, guar gum, and assorted other non-oat-or-nut-related ingredients. Canned soup: modified food starch (what now?), dextrose, hydrolyzed corn protein, beet powder, disodium guanylate, corn syrup, soy lecithin, xanthan gum, sugar, soy protein concentrate. Whole grain sandwich bread: Whole white wheat flour (whatever that means), sugar, soybean oil, cultured dextrose and maltodextrin, mono- and dicglicerydes, datem, calcium sulfate, citric acid, thiamin mononitrate, grain vinegar, soy lecithin. Trader Joe's pork dumplings: bleached enriched wheat flour, sugar, soybean oil, pork supplemented with textured soy protein. Brummel & Brown Natural Yogurt spread: liquid soybean oil, palm oil, palm kernel oil, liquid canola oil, salt, gelatin, nonfat yogurt, natural soy lecithin, vegetable mono- and diglycerides, potassium sorbate, calcium disodium edta, lactic acid, artificial flavors.
The food in my food suddenly seemed disturbingly un-foody.
One of Pollan's arguments that especially resonated with me was the point that humans evolved to eat so that we would be healthy. (This seems pretty obvious: An animal that likes to eat foods that make it healthy, in combinations that make it healthy, should be better able to pass on its genes and take care of its genetic relatives than one who develops a penchant for a disease-causing diet). And, our tastes have evolved so that they point us in the direction of what we need to be healthy at particular times: when we're dehydrated from sweating, we crave not just water but also salty foods; when we're protein-deprived, a big steak might sound particularly delicious. But because highly processed foods are designed to trick our taste buds and our bodies, we end up unable to rely on this natural calibrator and instead have to forge our way through the vast, constantly-shifting landscape of nutritionist advice that has perhaps been shaped more by political forces and a need for parsimony than by actual knowledge about what particular foods or food components do to our bodies and how they do it.
In short, one reason to eat whole foods is because it allows our bodies to actually accurately gauge what we're consuming and what else we might need: It means (and this is perhaps a little further than Pollan quite takes it) that if we eat whole foods, we could perhaps eat what we want -- what tastes good -- rather than what some nutritionist or dietician or article on this week's miracle food happens to be telling us.
I liked this idea. So I unpacked the cupboard full of pita chips and Cheerios and canned soup; the fridge full of egg substitute and fifty-ingredient bread; the freezer shelves crammed with bagels and frozen entrees. They are being replaced, slowly but surely, with whole foods and with mostly plants: quinoa, wild rice, black beans, Bhutanese red rice, lentils, split peas, chickpeas, leafy greens, rainbow carrots, potatoes, actual eggs, peaches, melons, figs, nuts, bread with pronounceable ingredients.
The only problem is, now I have to figure out how to cook all this stuff.