Thursday, May 17

Home-made Processed Food

Today I've been thinking about processed foods. I'm not talking about Pasteurized Process American Cheese Food kind of processed foods, or even the Double Quarter Pounder With Cheese kind of processed food. I'm talking about the potential difference -- or not? -- between foods I make in my kitchen, versus well, foods I just eat, maybe with minimal prep. And whether one is better or worse. Is it the ingredients? The % of processed ingredients in the overall product resulting? The morality of "raw" vs... whatever?

I think I'm a guilt-freak and I'm trying to figure out if I should feel guilty about making concoctions out of stuff like protein powder, flax, eggs, cream cheese, like, "You should be eating chicken and salad! There's no excuse!" or whether I should say "Hey, it tastes good, it has good nutrient-numbers, it keeps me on plan, so it's good."

There is a 'ground base' we could start with. Vegetables and fruits. If you buy them fresh, or better yet pick them fresh, that's as close to unprocessed as you can get. So we all assume that this is the best thing in the world, right? Assuming the veggie or fruit is not so sugar/starch laden that it functions like nature's pasta once it hits your innards. And of course fresh spices, which rock.

Then we move to 'mildly affected' foods. I go to the butcher shop which sells me the 1/4 of a side of beef from a local grass-fed farmer's cow just taken a couple days before, and he gives me a bunch of frozen shrink-sealed stuff that looks vaguely like a frightening science experiment, perhaps some new version of The Blob that too much time thawing on my counter could unleash on my innocent small town, but I know it will look like meat when unpackaged. Before I eat this, I have to cook it, no matter what my cats think of this uncivilized practice. So that is somewhat processed but it is "mostly" unchanged. I think.

What about seeds I grind? Surely a flax seed in 412 eeeny-weensy pieces is no less healthy than a flax seed whole? Is a flax seed eaten plain vs. mixed into a protein drink vs. baked in a muffin any different?

Then we move to processed foods. First, the dairy. I use cream, half & half, sour cream, cream cheese, cottage cheese, blue cheese, cheddar cheese, ok let's just be clear, I pretty much worship cheese in every form it may come in, not counting cheap American processed cheese food in little plastic wrapped slices which I consider an affront to the Cheese God that I will not abide. To be fair, hard cheeses are only processed in their root creation, far as I know; however all the other dairy stuff is pasteurized at the least, homogenized probably.

I'm not sure what either of those are in detail except according to my father, who spent his childhood swiping the big lump of cream at the top of milk bottles on the way to school in the morning from around the mid-40s to mid-50s, it has something to do with why he can't do that anymore. How his stories of luscious cream in the frosty cold mesh with his other stories of walking 2 miles to school barefoot in the snow with only a hard biscuit for lunch is beyond me, but these are the mysteries of parenthood. I have already assured my ten year old that the tragic deprivation of my childhood makes any complaint she may have for the next 8 years pointless and whiney. Dad taught me well.

I'm not really sure what difference that processing makes. My friends used to have 'raw milk'. I thought it tasted disgusting. Another friend drinks skim milk. To me this tastes like I imagine lapping up the dregs of my cat's water dish might. I am a whole milk kinda girl, although I can deal with 2%/1% if I must. Not just whole but even the somewhat intensified milk that Braum's sells, as they are the dairy slash fast food milk source of my choice. This is because it tastes awesome.

(But to be honest, it's also because super walmart, in their attempt to sell me 114.7 items I did not intend to shop for, puts the milk literally at the other end of the store away from the front door. They oughtta have quarter mile markers in that store, it's so big. If it were much bigger, it would cross the state line. I really like milk but I am just not making that much effort for it frankly.) Now that I'm VLC (very low carb) again, milk is out, which since it causes a craving response in me and I'm probably allergic to it in some bizarre way, is for the best.

So ok, dairy products are generally processed but I assume this processing is mostly just making them (a) fit to drink, (b) infused with vitamin D so my programmer / project manager "mole" lifestyle without sun is compensated for, and (c) less likely to kill me from some side effect of industrial dairy cow farming that I had not foreseen. Is it bad that they are processed like that? I don't know. I don't seem to have much choice in the matter though. My cream does not come with variants like "non"-homogenized. Is dairy technically a processed food?

Next we move on to the severely processed. Let's start with my favorite frankenfood: Low Carb Slim Fast drink in the can. 190 calories. 10.5g fat. 4 carbs, 2 fiber carbs, 2ecc, 20g protein. Plus a buncha vitamins. You cannot beat those numbers. After even my super walmart abandoned the LC version in favor of the omnipresent "Optima-reduces appetite!" version (with lowfat and 2g protein?! how does it do that?), I had to order it from Amazon. According to my estimates I need to buy stock in Slim-Fast's parent company, since a hefty chunk of my limited single-mom income is going toward it for the next 7.2 centuries, which is how long I expect my weight loss to take. No, I am NOT on a slim-fast diet, before anybody keels over with the horror of it. It's simply that I am trying to eat lots of times a day, I need a ton of protein a day, and I loathe protein powder. I can mix protein powder in with a slimfast and actually get it down my throat though, so it is helpful to have in my daily intake.

Is it bad to drink the stuff? Oddly the LC version has a lot less chemicals on the ingredients list than the other I compared it to some months ago. If it's the difference between not having a meal (which is my biggest problem: not having food ready in advance, not having time to make it when I'm working, etc.) then I figure it served a noble purpose, despite its processing.

OK now we get to home made stuff.

Let's say I take some eggs, and some cream, and some ground up flax seeds, and some protein powder, and some cocoa ( 24% high butterfat dutched!), and some sweetener (fiberfit and sweetzfree), and some almond oil, and some hazelnut flour (lower carb than almond flour), and I mix it all together in a bowl and then I bake it, for my cocoa muffins v1.8. The protein powder is very processed. The cream is pastur-homogo-something'd, and I'm sure the cocoa has gone through more processing than Liz Taylor's face. The flax seeds were ground up. But hey the eggs were pure!

OK so pop quiz: is it healthier for me to eat this that I make in my kitchen, than to eat something with similar ingredients I buy at the store? (No, it doesn't exist at the store. Humor my example.) Aside from maybe a single preservative ingredient or something, would there really be a difference?

If I am told to "avoid processed foods", does this mean that my combination of ingredients (ranging from pure to excessively processed), mixed and baked into some chemical conglomerate that even my kid likes (which only proves it's probably killing us from the inside out, given her other tastes), is a "higher grade, but still processed, food"?

Is it better for me to eat my eggs scrambled, vs. mixed up in a breadish, because they are less processed that way? Or is the fact that my breadishes are composed of protein, flax, nuts, etc. sufficiently redeeming?

Should I feel guilty about having many dozens of liquid flavorings/extracts, nearly three dozen flavors of DaVinci sugarfree syrups, "alternative sugars" in like 9 different forms, NOT/Starch etc. for thickening -- all pretty close to totally artificial ingredients? Am I losing dietary brownie points for eating things that were not one with God within the last 48 hours?

I want to quote this great passage from Dr. Michael Eades' blog about natural vs. well, unnatural, foods:

There is so much hype about the crappiness of the standard American diet crawling with processed foods of every stripe that it is easy to fall victim to the if-it's-organic-it-must-be-healthful con. Homemade ice cream with organic cream and organic sugar and home grown fruit seems so much more wholesome than store-bought, but your pancreas can't tell the difference. If you eat it (in large quantities) they will come. 'They' being enlarged fat cells and hyperinsulinemia. And 'they' come whether it's 'organic' or not. (Again, were I planning on going face down in the ice cream, I would prefer it made with 'wholesome' ingredients, but I wouldn't fool myself that my pancreas wasn't going to pay the price.)

So theoretically is my Low Carb Slimfast a better choice than frozen corn and peas microwaved? 'Cause even though the latter are "real food" and "natural," they'll kick pancreas butt better than an LC cheesecake will?

Speaking of LC cheesecake, how are they? I don't know. I've made three tiny ones (enough for 2 ramikens) but unfortunately, my hand, the spoon, and my mouth, conspire to eat it out of the Magic Bullet blender cup before it ever gets to the ramikens to bake. I would trade sex for the stuff it's so good. I haven't made it in eons because I think I like it too well. There has to be something sinful about anything I feel that passionate about.

Tonight's food: Godzilla Burgers. A replay on the hamburger mixed with some mustard, worcestershire, oregano, and Gorgonzola crumbled cheese. I'm hoping to make several and freeze a few and fridge a couple. My kid loves these.

Tonight's experiment: a sweetish that started out called 'protein powder donut holes', moved into 'LC funnel cakes', sidestepped to another form of 'waffles', etc. Most lowcarb recipes like this are actually "concept recipes", much like the flax bowl muffin or mock danish or pizza quiche, which you can modify like a mad scientist. There is an original, then variant versions, and four pages of raving, at the forum, link here.

Now there's that guilt again. "It's fried!" Maybe I can use coconut oil. Trying to get more calories and fat in my diet anyway and it's ridiculously hard. It's dominantly egg, butter, protein powder. If it's encouraged for me to eat eggs fried in butter, coconut oil in my coffee, and protein powder drinks, is it less healthy for me to eat something vaguely akin to a fried pastry? I mean, if I were putting a little sweetzfree or splenda in my coffee nobody'd comment, so adding it to my fried-thing shouldn't matter.

Is it like a matter of "the moral of it" -- morning coffee, protein drink and eggs are somehow inherently better than all of those ingredients (except the coffee) in a different form? I mean is it just WRONG for me if I were to adopt some recipe (using this one as an example) that is "homemade processed food" and eat that quite a lot, rather than fresh veggies and steak?

I guess my point is that recommendations from others in LC-land sometimes seem a bit contradictory or pollyanna and I'm wondering what "really" matters.



Sparky's Girl said...

What really matters is what will make you happiest and help you stick to your diet for life. I really get sick of the term "frankenfoods" because in all reality, isn't anything we "put together" unnatural? I mean broccoli with mealted cheese didn't come that way... we had to combine them. It just seems like a lot of hallaballoo over nothing, ya know?

Tracy said...

I agree, what matters most is what helps you stick with it, at least for now. And pretty much everything is processed, since cooking itself is processing. I shoot for avoiding overly chemically, long-ingredient list packaged goods most of the time.

BTW...I betcha you do have some sort of dairy intolerance...cravings are a humungo sign ;) You may want to try more goat cheeses and see if you notice a difference...or skip dairy entirely for a week, then add it back? Fun stuff!

Big Daddy D said...

I am a big fan of low-carb versions of "junk food". Because my low-carb versions usually have nut meal and flax instead of flour and lack the sugar, I think they are actually quite healthy. The problem is that I am developing the habit of eating lots of snack-type foods. If I were to drop the low-carb diet today and continue eating tons of desserts then I'd no doubt double my weight within a year..... but if it is truly a lifestyle change, then I can find comfort in the fact that I can still have cinnamon roles for breakfast as long as I make them with low-carb ingredients. The key is to understand how various ingredients effect you and to remain aware of what you are eating.

Calianna said...

I agree with Sparky's Girl - pretty much everything we cook/combine/take a knife to becomes "processed".

My take on what would be a real frankenfood is when something is processed in such a way that essentially nothing in it resembles the original food. For instance, twinkies... refined sugars, refined flour, artificial flavors, artificial colors (aren't those derived from coal tars, of all things?!), and a million chemicals and preservatives. On the other hand, a cheesecake made from cream cheese and sour cream (which of course have been processed from the original milk, but still looks and tastes recognizable as a dairy product), vanilla (an alcohol based extract of vanilla beans, which means it's processed too), some eggs (something that's not processed, at least not until we crack open the shells to actually use them) and something to sweeten it (in our case, usually an artificial sweetener, obviously a processed food, which could be considered the only frankenfood in this mixture). Then we're going to mix all those together and bake them until they don't really look like the original ingredients... but they do taste like a combination of the foods we used.

I was reading somewhere or other... if it's a food that your grandmother wouldn't recognise (or your great grandmother, I suppose, depending on how old a person is), then it's a frankenfood or overprocessed.