This morning as I was dozing, not wanting to get up before the alarm went off, I listened to a podcast from the BBC World Service series, The Food Chain. The episode was entitled Is Convenience Killing Us? and as you can guess from the title, was a discussion on the issues surrounding convenience and processed foods and their contribution to obesity, type 2 diabetes and other health issues.
Human beings process food to make it more palatable. When I set about making the cauliflower soup below, I combined the different elements to produce something quite different from the raw ingredients. None of this is strange to anyone. Processing food is something we do every day. Preserving food, from dried fish to jams, is also something mankind has done for centuries.
Convenience foods are another thing altogether. Some convenience, or should we say ready made, foods are not necessarily bad – think of a freshly baked loaf of artisan bread, butcher made sausages, or those basics, tinned beans (saves all the soaking!) and tomatoes. These can be items we either can’t make in a domestic kitchen or which are better produced by those with special skills. Tinned goods are a mode of preserving, and something we in New Zealand keep in our emergency supplies as a possible vital source of nutrition. However, ultra-processed foods are a different matter altogether. Crisps, so-called diet foods which may be low fat but are full of sugar to give them flavour, frozen ready meals are all ultra-processed foods. These are the ones that we should be concerned about. The amount of hidden sugar, salt and other additives can be quite alarming in some of these food items. Added sugars represent one in every five calories in the average ultra-processed food product, considerably higher than the equivalent in unprocessed or basic cooking ingredients. When I make a cake, I know how much sugar is in it. When I buy one, I don’t.
I was horrified to hear on the podcast about a preservative that keeps ‘fresh’ fruit salad ‘fresh’ for 3 weeks. No more fruit salad on a flight I guess! While preservatives can be natural – think salt, sugar, vinegar – unless we study ingredient labels, we often don’t know what we are eating. I’ve even heard of low-fat peanut butter, full of sugar of course, and a totally ridiculous and unnecessary product that has no nutritional benefit at all.
Now I cannot say I never eat crisps, never touch fast food or cheat every now and again and make gravy from a packet. I use tinned beans and tomatoes regularly, don’t make my own bread and buy venison meatballs from Woodburn Venison for a quick weekday dinner. I like to think I am informed about what I eat, and am lucky enough to have choices and live in a place where it is easy to buy fresh produce. However, not everyone has access to good, fresh food and not everyone is able to make meals from scratch, not through ignorance, but because they may be physically unable or not have access to a means to cook. What can be done about it, I don’t know. It’s partly educating ourselves and others, partly about making good produce available at an affordable price, partly about curbing the power of the food industry. Regardless, the issue needs to be addressed.
Something that is easy to make by anyone is soup. A big pot, full of vegetables and pulses, is filling and nutritious. Earlier this week I was attracted by the orange cauliflower above. It now needs to be eaten, so I decided to use it and a kumara in an old favourite I hadn’t made for a while, cauliflower soup. I adapted my favourite recipe from Gary Rhodes‘ Fabulous Food, a book that has sat on my shelf for many a year.
All you need to do is chop an onion and cook for a few minutes in butter or oil. Don’t let the onion brown. Add a chopped cauliflower (any colour!), a peeled and chopped kumara (type of sweet potato) and 500ml of vegetable stock. And yes – I used a stock cube for convenience. Add a generous dash of curry powder to your own taste. Bring to a simmer and cook until the vegetables are cooked and soft. Add 150 ml milk, then blend the soup to a smooth consistency.
Comfort food – soup
And so as evening approaches and I consider cooking our evening meal, my thoughts return to the podcast of this morning, and the processing of chicken and mushrooms I am about to do. Results of that experiment in the next post.