I kicked the supermarket habit in 2008 after knocking down cancer three times. My illness was a wake-up call. It really got my attention. I am grateful for the sustainable farmers who provide me with nutrient dense, clean, safe food. They changed my life. I believe that I am still alive today largely because of their understanding of the interconnectedness of soil, plants, humans, insects, animals, sun, wind, and rain. I am only just beginning to scratch the surface of this understanding through my own exploration. I do not have enough years left to learn everything they know, to experience all that they’ve experienced. It’s a charmed existence, this farming life, and each morning I look out my window to greet the day, my gratitude is renewed. Being city born and raised, the satisfaction of an honest day’s work tending animals in fields and barns took me by surprise. A shovelful of manure is more valuable than its weight in gold to me now, and I wouldn’t think of making that trade.
But back to 2008 – I quickly discovered that food from alternative sources was not only more healthful, but fresher and more flavorful as well. I developed these “10 rules for identifying nutritious, life-giving foods” for my own use, to guide me in my quest for healthful foods, and I found it quite difficult to follow them when I shopped in a supermarket. You will soon see why.
It is my pleasure to begin this series of articles – ten of them, one per “tip”. I hope you find the information useful as you explore new food choices for yourself, your family, and any guests that might find their way to your table.
Tip #1: Be a holistic shopper.
Look for real food in its original, unprocessed or minimally processed state. Whole, real food has enzymes, co-enzymes, co-factors, and a host of other components that aren’t listed on the label; ingredients that are needed to assimilate and absorb the nutrients in food. Many of these components and their interactions have not been studied, so there is no “proof” of how they work. But there is some science that suggests that in general, those who consume whole food enjoy robust health compared to those who consume processed food. Does real food intact in its original state have what your body needs to get the maximum health benefits from it? I believe it does.
If you want your food to be processed in some way, consider processing it yourself. If you are new to cooking, you will need to spend time getting acquainted with your kitchen accoutrements. Or hire someone to cook for you – someone whom you trust to use whole, nutrient dense ingredients and traditional food preparation techniques.
Making a pot of homemade stock is an example of processing food yourself. The traditional recipes for bone broths can be found in the book, Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. Bones are first soaked in water and raw apple cider vinegar, which prepares them for the minerals to be extracted. Then the bones are gently boiled along with carrots, onions and celery for a couple days. When it’s finished you have a colloidal mixture, a hydrophyllic colloid that attracts and draws digestive juices to the food in your gut. It’s a veritable alphabet soup of minerals that are immediately bio-available: calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, silicon, sodium, sulfur, and if it’s fish broth, iodine. It also contains collagen, glucosamine, chondroitin, and hyaluronic acid, all necessary for healthy joints, skin, hair and nails. Many people take supplements to obtain these nutrients, but here they are in a delicious food! Food that you process yourself has tremendous health benefits when compared to commercially processed foods.
Bone broths are very healing to the gut. Drink a cup in the morning with your breakfast. Use it to make soups, reduction sauces and gravy. You’ve heard the expression that “good soup will raise the dead”. This is the soup they’re talking about. The health-restoring properties of broth and soup are found in the home made variety. The rewards are well worth the time and effort of preparing your own. To my knowledge, there are no large food processing companies that make soup this way, and supermarkets don’t carry it. One local source of bone stocks and soups made from them is 100 Bowls of Soup. Located in Herndon, VA, 100 Bowls distributes their nutrient-dense stocks and soups to local grocers throughout Virginia. You can also order their stock through the Polyface Buying Club.
Fermentation is another tool that you can add to your food processing toolbox. Fermented foods are teaming with enzymes and probiotics. The art of fermentation is making a comeback in the home kitchen as a natural way to preserve foods without heating them, as in canning. Rather than decreasing nutrients with heat and pressure, fermentation actually increases nutrients. The beneficial probiotic bacteria produce vitamins C and K, B vitamins and additional enzymes. Just a tablespoon or two of lacto-fermented food with every meal aids digestion, increases absorption, and supports the immune system.
The original condiments – ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, chutneys – were digestive aids. They were fermented, alive with probiotics and enzymes. Condiments found in supermarkets are pasteurized. The heat of pasteurization kills the beneficial probiotics and denatures the enzymes. These pasteurized condiments contain sugar, flavorings, coloring, and no probiotics. Making your own condiments with whole foods is easy. There are recipes for them in Nourishing Traditions.
The original soda pops were also fermented. They had enzymes and live probiotics, and were considered tonics. Recipes for these, too, are in Nourishing Traditions – ginger ale, beet kvass, kombucha, orangina, and a lemon soda called “punch”. They’re easy to make, and in my opinion they taste much better than modern soda pops.
Back when I used to shop in supermarkets, I’d spend a lot of time squinting at labels, weighing which product had more vitamins, more nutrients, less artificial flavor and color, less sugar and salt. I call this “reductionist shopping”. I found it to be tedious and time consuming. Not fun at all!
On the labels, I always found ingredients that I wouldn’t add to my food if I were making it myself. Ingredients like soy lecithin, carageenan, sodium casseinate, and soy protein isolate. If I wouldn’t add them to food myself, why would I eat them if someone else put them there? Does that make it safer? And why are more nutrients added? Aren’t there enough in the food itself? If not, why? Sometimes vitamins and minerals are added that weren’t there in the first place (e.g., orange juice with calcium and vitamin D – seriously?).
Modern processed foods are taken apart, subjected to high heat and pressure, compounds are isolated, and nutrients are left behind or destroyed. Then these foods are put back together again. I like to call processed foods “Humpty-Dumpty foods” because I believe that it is impossible to restore processed food to its original state simply by adding nutrients.
In order to be a holistic shopper, and not a reductionist shopper, I had to avoid what was on the shelves in the center aisles. That’s where all the Humpty-Dumpty foods are: prepared foods, canned foods, extruded cereals, chips, packaged foods. Instead, I had to shop the perimeter where I could find foods that were still in their original unprocessed state. At the perimeter, I found reprieve from label-mania, MSG, and wood pulp.
By the way, MSG doesn’t have to be specifically mentioned on the label. Food processors know that the public does not want MSG in their foods, so they hide it in words like “other natural flavors”, or “other spices”. There are new flavors made every day in flavor factories. MSG is included in many of them, along with other harmful ingredients that don’t have to be on the label. Ingredients that always contain processed free glutamic acid include hydrolyzed protein (or anything “hydrolyzed”), yeast extract, autolyzed yeast, calcium caseinate, sodium caseinate, textured protein, soy protein, soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, whey protein, whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrate (for a complete list, see naturaldoc.com).
Then to complete the deception, many companies put “no MSG” or “no MSG added” on the same label – right next to the “certified organic” label in some cases, because some organic companies are doing this, too (for a list of companies that claim no MSG when it’s included under other names, see the website truthinlabeling.org).
Wood pulp is another interesting ingredient. Can you digest wood pulp? Food companies put it in food under the name “cellulose” or “fiber”. It’s found it in meat, shredded cheese, bread, ice cream, pancakes, bagels, salad dressing, pasta sauce, tortillas and more. For a list of these companies and food containing wood pulp, visit http://foodfreedom.wordpress.com/2011/07/08/15-food-companies-that-serve-you-wood/
Since you never know what’s in processed food despite your best efforts to read the ingredients, why waste your precious time? If it has a label, your best bet is not to buy it. That may seem like a radical recommendation, but it’s one of the best ways to shop holistically. Be a holistic shopper. Try applying this first tip until the next article. As we move through the ten tips in this series, you may find more and more reasons to kick the supermarket habit!