A recent report suggesting sugar substitutes can lead to weight gain, a report this summer that diet foods can make us fat, and now today’s Chicago Trib article about how diet crazes shape our grocery shelves but fail to change our habits, fills me once again with astonishment. It would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic.
Silky fatback and kosher salt photo by Donna T. Ruhlman
We have a serious fat problem in America. It has nothing to do with our obesity problem. We also have a salt problem, and it’s not about hypertension. Fat and salt are the leading bugaboos in America’s on-going national diet program, the wrench in the spokes of our quest for good nutrition, the evil forces which, in our fearful helpless craving for them, prevent Americans from achieving their whole-grain, high-fiber, all-natural, Rocky Mountain health. And what can we do about it?
Eat more fat! Salt your food naturally.
Americans have a hopelessly neurotic relationship with what they consume, of this there’s little disagreement, a neurosis that’s built into our culture from the broadest levels of agriculture and government, which demand that we subsidize farmers to grow crops you can’t eat without industrial processing, all the way down to our grocery store shelves, which are packed with confusing, marketing-spun messages about what’s good for us and what’s not.
Snackwells, for instance. Who’s the clever executive who came up with that name? Want a healthy snack? Try buying ... Snackwells! Are Americans stupid enough to buy that? You bet! (More here from Trib article on the Snackwell story.)
Just about every box and bag on the grocery store shelves has some kind of “low fat” version, sometimes even if the real version doesn’t require fat in the first place. On a recent flight, I was handed a Quaker Oats Granola Bar—granola, it’s good for you, and it’s low fat. Granola doesn’t need much fat, if any, in the first place; but it does need sugar and you can bet that’s the reason my Quaker Oats “low fat” granola bar was every bit as sweet and chewy as a Milky Way bar. And on the previous flight, the first ingredient in the blueberry muffin I’d been given was sugar, not flour.
The sad fact is that fresh food that is good for you is significantly more expensive than the processed crap that truly is bad for our diet, not to mention our food production system. And the people who most need food to be healthy are the ones who can least afford it. The millions of Americans on a restricted food budget will see little choice other than to buy the cheap calories provided by agribusiness corn.
What drives me crazy though is the American cook and the American consumer, who truly do care about food and cooking, but are continually mislead, largely by an uninformed media and unchecked marketing, notably with two of the most fundamental components of cooking—salt and fat.
I say unto you: Fat is good! Fat is necessary. Ask any chef. Fat does not make you fat, eating too much makes you fat! We aren’t filling our bodies with sodium because of the box of kosher salt we use to season our food, we’re doing it with all the processed food that’s loaded with hidden salt. And American cooks and American diners need to understand the differences.
I hope it's obvious that a diet composed of vast quantities of saturated animal fats is not good for anyone. This kind of fat has been linked to elevated blood-cholesteral and heart disease—people who have issues with these problems need to be cautious. And some people have serious issues with hypertension and high-blood pressure—salt will exacerbate these.
But most people don’t have these problems, and for them, fat is not bad, not evil, not dangerous. It’s a pleasure in the right quantities and we shouldn’t be made to fear it. If you eat natural foods, plenty of vegetables, and avoid foods that come in a box or bag or is in some way processed—food that’s often loaded with salt—you should be able to salt your food to pleasing levels. Food needs to be seasoned for the best flavor.
As ever the French can teach us about a healthy relationship with food. American’s scratch their heads over the so-called French Paradox—how can the French eat all that rich fatty food and have lower levels of heart disease and associated problems. I’ll bet their red wine does help, as has been suggested, but what is more likely the case, in my opinion, is that the French eat more natural foods than Americans, and they eat it in appropriate quantities. That, I would bet money, is the root of their ability to eat a heavily salted duck confit, dripping with duck fat, and not have a problem with it, to luxuriate in Epoisse and Reblochon. They can do this precisely because they don’t eat “low-fat” granola bars and blueberry muffins that have more sugar than flour and eggs.
The French paradox. It can’t be their diet—given all that evil stuff they eat. Must be that red wine they drink! Can we really be so stupid? You bet!
Americans need to be better educated about the food they eat, what’s truly good, what’s harmful, quantities that are necessary, and super-sizes we don’t need. Until we find out for ourselves from reliable sources the answers to these questions, instead of relying on knee-jerk media alarmism and marketing hooey, we’re not going to eat the food that both satisfies our souls and our bodies, and will perpetuate our fat and salt dysfunction.