Saturday, August 16, 2014

Eater's Remorse: The Life and Lies of the Food Industry

In the food industry, mislabeling of food for marketing purposes, or simply out of sheer ignorance, is very common. Terms are played with fast and loosely, and half of things don't mean what you think they do. There's little to no regulation unless certification is involved, and the FDA allows all kinds of sneaky stuff to come through.

As someone who eats very clean (for the most part, unless I'm eating out; in which case, I have fasted, am hungry, and prepared to be drowned in copious amounts of conventional butter), I've become a diligent reader of labels.

I've learned a lot of things in my growth as a label-pore(r):

  1. "All-Natural" doesn't mean shit. "Natural flavors" just mean they have occurred somewhere in nature. For instance, artificial vanilla, raspberry, and strawberry flavors may be derived from the anal glands of a beaver. They don't even have to list "castoreum." Because a beaver is a real thing, found in nature. So, that "vanilla-flavored" Greek yogurt you're eating? Yep, beaver butt. Go ahead and vom. 
  2. "Diet" items may actually be more additive and dangerous than their full-calorie counterparts. Sucralose, aspartame, all that fake shit that has zero calories and no sugar actually triggers you to want more, as well as changing your tastebuds. Harvard has even proven it's more addicting than cocaine. So do yourself a favor when you're ordering that triple from Wendy's and just steer into the skid with the regular soda while you enjoy your diabeetus. Or, you know, just do coke. (Don't do coke.)
  3. "Healthy" can mean anything. The brand Healthy Choice, for instance (and they suckered me in, too) is actually often chock-ful of sugar, and always crazy high in sodium content. There are a bajillion ingredients, many artificial or unnecessary were you to replicate it in your own kitchen, and unpronounceable. And anything can be called "healthy," substantiated by one selling point, whether it's lower in calories than its competitor, has some kind of fiber, or whatever.
  4. Random shit is in everything. There is seaweed in your almond milk, which may or may not cause inflammation in your colon and bloat. (The jury's still out on this, and there are two types of carageenan to add to the confusion.) There is Turtle Wax on your Pop Tart. (In addition to seaweed, and for those shiny frosting varieties. Click the link and look for Carnauba wax. It's all up in that piece, ready to shine your guts.) There is yoga mat in your bread, which created a MASSIVE uproar just this year when Subway announced it'd be eliminating it. (In brief, everyone's response was, "wtF?!? You guys were putting WHAT in my bread, and WHO else does it, too?!") There is a FUCKTON of salt and preservatives added to your raw shrimp and scallops. And of course, again, the beaver butt. 
  5. "No trans fats" is a lie. Okay, that's a little dramatic, and a bit of a hyperbole, but food manufacturers can legally say "0 grams of trans fats" when they taper down the serving sizes so that the nutrition label has to round down from 0.5. The key is to look for hydrogenated oils. If it shows up on the side of that box, you best believe you'll be eating some, because seriously? Who eats two cookies and calls it a day. There's a reason those Keebler Fudge Shop Fudge Stripes doesn't have a reseal. They know those palm oil-oozing, corn syrup-having things are goddamn delicious and addicting. 
  6. Sugar has many aliases. Sure, a rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but sugar by any other is even sweeter. They do that because then they don't have to list "sugar" so high up on the list of ingredients, since those labels are designed to taper down proportionately. So if the first ingredient is sugar, that means it has more sugar than anything else. But if they break it up to sucrose, dextrose, fructose (or any other -ose, for that matter), fruit juice concentrate, natural sweeteners, honey, molasses, and etc., then something less damaging may float its way to the top of the list. Sneaky, sneaky!
  7. Kobe beef is NEVER Kobe beef. Now this super sucks, because you pay a premium for it. But it's actually a serious crime to import--even for personal consumption--this rare, fatty, beautifully marbled delicacy from Japan. Plus, in the U.S., were some ranchers able to get their hands on valuable Wagyu cattle, they cross-bred it with domestic cattle, creating a hybrid. Today, scant amounts are now available, but guaranteed, what you're eating is not it.
  8. Prime steak may or may not be Prime. If every neighborhood bar and franchise chain restaurant had real prime steak, it wouldn't be so prime. It'd be average. What makes a steak a real prime steak is a USDA Prime certification, which is given to only 2% of the beef in the marketplace, and reserved for fine dining establishments and affluent, well-connected consumers. There is simply not enough prime steak to go around for everyone to be offering it, which means you're being lied to. 
  9. Your food eats shit. Literally. You like tilapia, and think it's a healthy choice? Well, stay away from the farmed fish, then. If it comes from China, chances are its diet consists of chicken feces.
  10. "Food coloring" comes from the inside. Mmm, farmed salmon -- cheap, healthy, and accessible. It's great, with all its omega-3s, right? Yeah ... except that the lovely red color you see is a courtesy of feed with food dye in it. Oh, and beef is often dyed, too. So there's that.
  11. "Made with Whole Grains" is SUPER misleading. I mean, yeah, there might be a whole wheat kernel in there, or millet or rice or the like. But if "enriched white flour" is the first ingredient listed, there's only a nominal amount of the good, unrefined, unprocessed stuff. They just add enough in so that they can change the label. Smart, huh?
  12. "Protein, Fiber, Buzzwords!" Some foods splash all over their labels and boxes that they're the kings of all these good things that should be in your body. Cool! ... But the thing is, although they're touting these terrific traits (see what I did there?), the quantities are often unimpressive. Many granola bars are cheap with their fibers and generous with their sugar. As in more sugar than a candy bar. Or you might be like, "Whoa! This granola bar has 10 grams of protein!" On the other hand, you could just eat an egg. Like boil it, peel it, and you've got 6 lovely grams without all the car wax and sugar and trans fats and carbs.
I have so many more gripes and pet peeves, but this is it for now because it's been a while since I posted and Boy is haranguing me since we're supposed to be somewhere ten minutes ago. However, I highly recommend reading Eat This, Not That (any of them!), and found them personally highly enlightening, and part of why I no longer eat shit in a box. 

Okay, that's my periodic PSA. Have fun with that!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Epicurean Adventures: Looking Back

I am incredibly fortunate.

It's easy to forget such simple facts when the mundanity of everyday life sweeps over you relentlessly, with chores and errands calling your name, the pressure of work weighing down upon your shoulders, and the demands of creating homeostasis in your home -- even without the added intricacies of children -- leave you drained every day. However, it is for this reason we have pictures.

It's a running joke in my family that I take pictures of food when I travel, and Boy takes photos of monuments and statues he can't identify. Both are true. However, it truly is the food that makes me realize just how very, very lucky I am.

I've had real Kaiser rolls in Vienna, and grew up on its equally delicious doppelganger, the New York deli roll (dough conditioners be damned; I'll eat yoga mats if it gives my bread that sweet, fluffy, damp crumb that is my Achilles heel). I've tasted street dumplings in Beijing for 50 cents for ten, made by hand by a toothless grandma in a hutong shop, and was raised on my dad's rendition, with house-ground pork, home-grown organic Chinese chives, and hand-rolled dough -- a painstaking method he still uses at his restaurant to date. I've had grass-fed steak in Chicago and wood-smoked brisket in Austin. Barbecue ribs in Memphis and Birmingham. Experienced the pleasure of beignets among drunkards and revelers at 4 AM on the banks of the Mississippi, St. Louis Cathedral looking on in silent reproach and majesty. Compared the sweet oysters of the Chesapeake Bay to those of the Gulf Coast and Blue Point. I've tasted roasted Moravian duck in a cellar restaurant in Old Town Prague, just steps from the Astronomical Clock, Long Island duckling covered in cherry sauce, and Peking duck in both Beijing and Flushing. Berkshire pork in the Berkshire mountains, and smoked to perfection in Brooklyn. I've had a seared tuna burger fresh off the dock in Honolulu, the salty Pacific air adding more flavor and a sense of joy in the simplicity of being and eating. Sacher torte at the Sacher Hotel, where it was invented, and at Demel in Vienna, the confectionary that served the Hapsburg royalty for generations, and pretty much invented the art of pastry-making. Gyros, Japanese, Vietnamese and Italian in the most unexpected of places. Croissants in Barcelona, Rome, Cannes and Marseille, for comparison, yet not Austria, where it was invented and brought to Paris by Marie Antoinette. Goulash in the Czech Republic and Austria, yet not in Hungary, home of this stew. Shepherd's pie and Guinness in Ireland, in pubs whose woods have been glossed to a rich patina by age and recipes have been unchanged for centuries. 

Every one of these experiences have changed me in some little way, and it is through taste that I experience a world and a culture. It is to satisfy my literal appetite that I travel; my belly inspires me. 

And every once in a while, when I have occasion to glance through the hundreds of digital memories that mark the places I've been, establishments I've patronized, and food I've had, I can't help but thank the roads in my life that have led me to the roads I've thus far traveled, and become even more excited for what the future holds. With my thirtieth birthday coming up, it is with pride that I look at the map I bought Boy for our tenth (dating) anniversary and the many pins marking where we've been, jutting out of its surface like a Voodoo doll, and think to myself, "Man, am I one lucky betch that the best is yet to come." And that for 13 years, I've been with a Boy with a similar voracity for Epicurean Adventures and dreams of a lifetime of stuffing our faces, hand in hand.

"I do believe it's true,
But there are roads left in both of our shoes,
And if the silence takes you,
Then I hope it takes me, too."
- Death Cab for Cutie

Cinnamon sugar chimney bread in Vaci Utca, Pest.

Sweet rapunzel and Styrian potato salad with pumpkin seed oil, spinach and cheese dumplings, and the real, original Wienerschnitzel at Figlmuller's in Vienna.

Bakery of the kings, Demel, in Vienna.

Fresh roasted Prague ham with pungent mustard, fresh rye bread, and sauerkraut spaetzel, accompanied by a giant cheese and ham crepe, from food stalls in Prague.

Breakfast at the famous Cork English Market, where every ingredient served is sourced locally from the bustling marketplace downstairs.

The Temple Bar ... in Temple Bar, Dublin.

Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives-recommended hot dog stand in the International Marketplace in Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Oahu.

Dumplings in a delicious dump, just outside of a hutong in historical Beijing.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Ignorance May Be Bliss, But Knowledge Is Power

I'd taken some time off blogging and freaking out about delicious foods a while ago due to a horrible and crippling chronic inflammation in my esophagus that had, after many tests, been determined to be GERD, an acid reflux variation that--in layman's terms--sets up residence in your throat. Awful.

Every day, it felt like there was a fuzzy tennis ball in my throat, physically holding it open while also obstructing airflow. Hiccuping-type burps would embarrassingly emerge in fits from my throat, with low growls and the constant flow of air and gasses trying to push themselves out would actually make me physically nauseated and lightheaded. I would have to push into my stomach or neck to try to force burps out, but because these episodes didn't stem from the gut, but rather from gas bubbles trapped in my throat, they weren't satisfying belches. Instead, my esophagus would become further trapped in the "open" position and the cycle would continue until it became a night of sleepnessness and discomfort. In fact, I became afraid to eat and try things (a fate worse than death for a foodie), not knowing the exact triggers; the usual suspects that are culprits to regular acid reflux didn't cause a reaction for me.

Garlic, onions, tomatoes ... still tremendously enjoyable. Cake, sometimes would cause a reaction, but I could still eat to obscenity and feel okay. Stonyfield and Chobani (more on this cheating, sugar-loaded, fake "healthy" brand here) yogurt? Terrible. But meanwhile, the Fage (however gross the new, supersweet Fruyo blended line is--24 grams of sugar is more than a candy bar!) was fine, except when it was expired and there was too much liquid up top. Coffee would lead to incidents as well. Cream cheese was a guarantee of misery afterwards, but mascarpone was 50/50 (mmm, tiramisu ...). So I thought, maybe it's dairy? Lactose sensitivity? I am genetically predisposed to it; a whopping 90% of the Asian population is lactose sensitive or intolerant, which makes sense since it's not a food found in the ancestral diet.

This terrible affliction that affected my day-to-day living to an incredible extent was initially what triggered my workout spree, motivation to lose the unhealthy extra poundage that I was carting around after moving back to lonely Long Island and working a miserable, disreputable, thankless, soul-sucking day job that made me even sadder about giving up my life in New Orleans. However, through my commitment to lose weight, fat in my midsection that was definitely affecting my digestion, squeezing my poorly functioning organs whose very DNA protested becoming squished in fat, I was able to slowly but surely get this GERD-like thing under control.

I'm sure dropping 40 pounds helped tremendously since my innards now had some room to move around and do stuff. Being active again definitely contributed to helping those internal gasses escape in a healthy way. I thought I was fixed.

But then, I was confused when after I started counting calories and eating healthier, the burps came back. There didn't seem to be much in common with the things I was eating, and like I said, I suspected dairy. But ... it also happened when I didn't have any moo juice products. So I thought it could be oil and/or fat that upset my overly sensitive stomach. But cutting down on healthy fats just led to my nails flaking apart and skin drying out. And I would still have some bad days.

However, I think I've finally figured out what the REAL culprit: artificial sweetener.

When I started experimenting with eliminating and tracking food intake and my body's subsequent reaction, Splenda with my coffee would kick this in. Every. Time. I started reading labels more closely, not just for calorie and nutrition counts, but for ingredients labeled as that tricky bastard sucralose. The added fake sugars to my low- or non-fat food (which, by the way, they do to compensate for the loss of richness in flavor to the reduced fat product)? Always.

Apparently, although I had to pay hundreds of dollars to doctors to not tell me this (seriously--why do specialists just send you to other specialists and labs? Do they get kickbacks from them? Wtf goes on with this medical game?!), using my own body as a guinea pig was the best way to figure out that this was the toxic thing. I mean, yes, too much dairy inevitably leads to gas and throat burps, but that's because I have a tendency to sliiiiightly overdo all things comestible. But without exception, sucralose led to misery ... and still does. No matter how much I work out, how healthy I eat. And now, after finally identifying it, I'm finding more and more evidence that Splenda and other chemically-made artificial sweeteners are TERRIBLE for you. Not only does it create more of an addiction to sweets and increasing your tolerance for it, but it actually increases the amount of bacteria in your gut.

Not good. And I could go on and on even longer than this, ranting disconnectedly (yes, I am openly acknowledging the poor writing quality of this very stream-of-consciousness post), but I won't.

Seriously, just Google "Splenda" and "Is Splenda bad for you?" You'll be shocked and appalled.

So why am I talking about this? Well, in case anyone else out there is suffering from this, since all the message boards I'd ever read researching "throat burps" came up with nothing. Yes, I know that's gross, but this was really an experience that sucked the joy out of my eating life for over a year--misery.

Also, to reinforce the importance of quality, real ingredients in food and what a difference it can make not only to your diet, but to your life. Prilosec, Prevacid, and all that shit didn't work for me. You know what did? Eating pineapple (the bromelain enzymes help to you digest better; it's not always about the acid in a food!) ... and eating whole foods. Cooking at home. Committing to eating local and taking fast food and chain restaurants completely out of the equation. Going to restaurants that believe in farm-to-table and sourcing locally, letting natural flavors shine through. Visiting other countries that default to local produce, non-genetically modified food and grass-fed/pasture-raised/free-range meat sources ... all of which, by the way, taste significantly and noticeably better and are more concentrated in flavor than conventional American whole foods.

As I get more and more into reading labels, uncovering the dirty secrets of food manufacturing in America (and believe you me, they are DISGUSTING, filthy secrets), and continue to fix my sad guts by cleaning up my act with clean eating, I just wanted to write a bit about my personal struggle with manufactured and chemically altered/created food and encourage others again to get out of the chains and into local restaurants and markets. Stop eating at Applebee's with their frozen, microwaved mediocrity, or Cheesecake Factory's sodium bombs when there are adorable hidden gems in your community. Don't head to a Hard Rock Cafe on your Hawaiian vacation when you could be enjoying local seafood, fresh from the docks from a mom-and-pop joint right on the pier. Shop your local farmer's market and support the little guys while rewarding yourself with fresh-picked produce rather than buying that super-shiny apple shipped from the other end of the country ... or continent, in the cases of some citrus and other stuff. Join a CSA and be adventurous, discovering new recipes. And most importantly, support your community.

Your stomach, health, and town will thank you. I know mine did.