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What is real food? Don’t ask Dr. Kellogg

Fifteen years ago, when my wife began thinking about teaching cooking classes, she asked me to help her come up with a name for her new cooking school. I asked her what she wanted to accomplish. Did she want to teach people how to cook fancy “gourmet” foods? She pondered my question and responded: “No…what I really want to do is teach people how to cook from scratch without having to rely on processed foods.” “Then you need a name that expresses this philosophy,” I responded. “How about RealCuisine?”

Over the years my wife invited hundreds of people into her kitchen and taught them how to cook. Upon retirement from teaching, she began her 10-year career as an Illinois Times food columnist. The RealCuisine name was resurrected when our daughter, Ashley, moved back to Springfield and opened RealCuisine Catering.

Nowadays there’s much confusion over “real” versus “processed” food. Real or “whole” food is food that has not been processed, refined, stripped, polished, fortified, enriched or otherwise modified. Real foods have names that your great-grandmother would recognize. If it’s not real food, then it’s manufactured calories and there’s a big difference between real food and manufactured calories. Manufactured calories cause all kinds of serious medical problems such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Wheat, for example, when harvested, is composed of a bran fiber coat, an endosperm composed primarily of starch, and the wheat germ, which contains nutritious oils. Processing removes the bran fiber coat and the wheat germ, leaving a pellet of white starch, which we know as flour. When ingested, the resultant starch chains break down and are absorbed quickly. Foods that are easily broken down and quickly absorbed (like white flour and sugar) cause a rapid rise in blood sugar. Foods that are broken down slowly (such as vegetables, nuts, whole grains, beans, eggs, meats) get absorbed slowly and blood sugars remain stable.

After the broken-down food crosses the walls of your gut and enters your bloodstream, your body releases insulin to escort the sugar molecules into the cells of your body. The faster the sugar is absorbed, the greater the amount of insulin is needed. The slower the absorption, the less insulin is required. High levels of insulin lead to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance leads to pre-diabetes and obesity.

Nutrients that are absorbed slowly include fiber, proteins (found in whole grains, seeds, nuts, eggs and non-starchy vegetables). Nutrients that are absorbed quickly are sugar and “stripped” carbohydrates found in processed foods: soda, breakfast cereal, doughnuts, bagels, cookies and pasta.

I am always amazed when I walk through the cereal and juice aisles of the grocery store. The shelves are filled with brilliantly colored packages. If you squint, you might think you were in the aisle of a toy store rather than a grocery store. There are hundreds and hundreds of products competing for shelf space. Well-meaning parents, not wanting their children to drink soda, shop for “healthier” alternatives such as fruit juices, which unfortunately are just as “unhealthy” as soda. And obesity and diabetes rates keep climbing.

How did we arrive at this point? Our story begins back in the late 1800s in Battle Creek, Michigan. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg opened a sanitarium and wanted to provide his patients nutritious breakfast options and developed a flaked cereal. Dr. Kellogg took a leave of absence to continue his medical studies in Europe and left the management of his business interests to his brother, Will Kellogg, who was more interested in making money than Dr. Kellogg. Will realized that the addition of sugar to the breakfast flakes (which his brother strongly opposed) increased acceptance. One of the patients at the sanitarium was a marketing whiz named C.W. Post. Post, from Springfield, Illinois, later opened up his own sanitarium and line of cereals in competition with the Kelloggs. And the processed food industry was born.

During World War II, food-manufacturing emphasis shifted to creating food for the troops. Rations with a long shelf life requiring little preparation were developed: MREs -- Meals Ready to Eat. Fearing that our soldiers would not maintain adequate nutrition if the foods were bland and boring, the food industry hired chemists to devise ways of enhancing taste while maintaining portability and long shelf life. They found that by manipulating proportions of sugar, salt and fat, an optimal taste could be achieved, which they dubbed the “bliss point.”

The postwar boom saw an increase in homemakers leaving the kitchen and entering the workplace. The processed food industry, which had ramped up production for the war, needed to find new markets and stepped in to provide “convenience” foods for working households. The food giants assigned their chemists the task of developing food products that stimulate the taste buds, diminish the feeling of fullness and entice you to keep eating. To further this goal, psychologists were hired to evaluate which product formulations created the greatest acceptance. After the “bliss point” of the product was achieved, marketing firms were hired to create product appeal and prominent grocery store shelf space.

The processed food industry felt pushback from home economics teachers and responded by creating Betty Crocker, a fictitious character who took over the reins of consumer education. Betty put a human face on food corporations bidding for the attention of consumers. Meal preparation shifted from cooking meals from “scratch” to meals created by combining ready-made products. With each successive generation, the knowledge and skills required to prepare meals from unprocessed ingredients diminished. It’s no accident that we have become a society of snackers. That’s what happens when your body isn’t nourished by real food.

In my efforts to break my own dependency on processed foods, I have learned to make delicious, nutritious dips and spreads. But my strategy falls apart when I enjoy my dips and spreads on a cracker. Most crackers have a high sugar content and contain surprisingly little fiber. Keebler Club Crackers, Ritz Crackers and Wheat Thins are very high in sugar/high fructose corn syrup. Surprisingly, 10 Ritz Whole Wheat Crackers or 10 Nabisco Wheatsworth Stone Ground Wheat crackers contain less than a single gram of fiber.

Making your own nutritious crackers is surprisingly easy. The following recipe was given to me by my friend Molly Suhadolnik, co-owner of CrossFit Instinct. These crackers are tender and crisp because the seeds contribute their own natural oils. Molly’s Crackers Ingredients • 3/4 cup water • ½ cup almond meal • 1/2 cup ground flax seeds + 3 tablespoons whole flax seeds • ¼ cup sunflower seeds • ¼ cup sesame seeds • 2 tablespoons chia seeds Preparation • Heat oven to 350 degrees. • Combine dry ingredients, and then add water. Mixture will be slightly runny. • Spread evenly onto parchment paper lined baking sheet. • Bake for 30-40 minutes

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