We all love(d) our grandparents, and I have only fond memories of mine. My mother’s father was a truck farmer who owned 40 acres on Staten Island. I remember his really rough hands. Every week he drove his chain-drive, solid-tired, flat-bed truck through the Holland Tunnel to the NYC’s Washington Street market before dawn. There, he sold crates of vegetables at the wholesale market where the World Trade Center was later to be built. He and my grandmother were both fat and died at about age 75, he of lung cancer (he loved cigars), she of Alzheimer’s.
My father’s father was skinny and died at age 79, but his wife, my grandmother, lived to be 89 and was skinny all her life. She hadn’t eaten a tomato since 1895, she said. “Poison.” “Nightshade family.” So are potatoes, of course, and eggplant, Bell peppers, chili pepper, and belladonna (deadly nightshade). So far, the veggies haven’t killed me.
I did not derive any enduring wisdom about eating from my grandparents. Increasingly today, however, we hear this advice: Don’t eat any food that didn’t exist when your grandmother went food shopping, or don’t eat anything that is sold in a box or a bag; or has more than 4 ingredients; or has things in it that you can’t pronounce. In other words: eat whole, unprocessed, unrefined foods. In sum, as Michael Pollan says, “Eat Real Food”. I think that’s good advice, as far as it goes. It’s a start anyway. And we all have to start somewhere if we want to improve the quality of our lives and avoid getting a “progressive” dietary disease like Type 2 diabetes, or Metabolic Syndrome!
It’s easy to make these pronouncements, but we all lead busy lives, and preprocessed foods are very convenient. Besides, dietary advice is constantly changing, and so much is still unknown and uncertain. Most people still think, Low-fat? Low carbohydrate? Who’s to know? And besides, your doctor’s in charge of your health, right? And “government knows best”! Well, if you read this column regularly, you know I don’t think so. YOU are in charge of your health, and especially what you put in your mouth. YOU decide. But, how do you know whom to believe?
So, as it happens, the grandparents of our grandparents made smart food choices by default! Real Food was the only option they had. But in truth, even they made some bad choices. Stone-ground white flour was replaced about 1870 by steel-roller white flour. The new process eliminated the bran and the germ. It wasn’t until the 1940s that the government required white flour to be enriched, adding back the B vitamins 1, 2, 3, and 9, plus iron.
Then in 1905, chemists at Proctor and Gamble, the soap maker, accidentally discovered that by hydrogenating cotton seed oil, they could create a trans molecule that made the fat solid. Voila! A new “food” had been created. This new processed fat looked like lard, and quickly supplanted it, tallow, and butter, all natural (saturated) fats.
Fast forward. Now, to avoid both trans fats and saturated fat (and too many carbs), the 2015 Guidelines doubled down on increasing UNsaturated fats. We are 1) encouraged to eat more MONOunsaturated fat like olive oil, which is good, and 2) eat more POLYunsaturated fat (PUFA). PUFA’s are what fried foods are cooked in, repeatedly. Repeated, high-temperature use destroys the delicate omega 3’s and oxidizes the rest. Oxidation = rancidity.
So, if we’re to eat the way our grandparent’s grandparents ate, the challenge is 1) to eat Real Food; 2) avoid white flour, 3) avoid deep fat frying and 4) examine ingredients lists for hydrogenated trans fats from vegetable oils.Now add this: avoid refined grains. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines tells you explicitly to do this. It gets AgriBusiness mad as hell. The DGA already has the beef, lamb, pork and dairy industries up in arms. They really don’t want to get Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill riled up too. But their representatives are on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. I’m sure it also miffs the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the consumer advocacy group who, starting in 1984, were the chief proponents for the use trans fats for frying in fast-food restaurants, to avoid beef fat (tallow). Together, these groups are still in my grandfather’s driver’s seat in today’s marketplace. Let’s hope that that marketplace will eventually “move” too, as the Washington Street Market did for the Twin Towers.