Can We Effectively ‘Vote with Our Dollars?’

I’m not one to be super critical of products and companies on this blog and I’m going to put as positive a spin on it as I possibly can. But I ran into something recently that was quite a wake-up call for me and I’m going to share this with you.

It used to be that if you were vegetarian or macrobiotic or into eating whole grains, rice cakes were the standby snack food. Plain, slathered with peanut butter or apple butter, or perhaps with hummus, rice cakes made an extremely innocent little snack that didn’t harm anything or anybody.

Claude loves rice cakes with toasted sesame tahini and sauerkraut. Moi aussi, Claude, me too!

Claude loves rice cakes with toasted sesame tahini and sauerkraut. Moi aussi, Claude, me too!

Today there are many brands of rice cakes. Most notably in my supermarket I see Quaker brand. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Aren’t they the oatmeal people? Rice cakes have been a natural expansion of their product line for years.

Fine. They are an industrial food manufacturer, very mainstream and it is not surprising to find that several of their rice cakes have sugar and a bunch of other stuff that I wouldn’t feed to a dog. No surprise there.

What about a well-respected organic food company that has been farming high-quality organic brown rice for us since 1937? This is a company I have relied on for the mainstay of my diet for decades. I’m talking about Lundberg Farms. When my kids were young and I had a house full of students and recipients of my homecooked meals, I bought Lundberg Organic Short Grain Brown Rice by the 50-pound bag—just about every other week! (Yes, I did a ridiculous amount of cooking back then and I loved it.)

I also bought their rice cakes. My favorite is the Mochi Sweet Rice but I also like several of the others. These make very substantial snacks. In fact, the bags are surprisingly heavy because, as the company brags, they are made with twice as much rice as other brands. And sure, I know that “caramel” and “cinnamon toast” rice cakes and some others are likely to have sugar in them and I never bought those.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is, I used to be able to pick my flavor of rice cake and just toss it into my cart. I didn’t have to give it a second thought. These were Lundberg’s after all. I could count on them to be high quality, fine products.

A couple of weeks ago I was shopping and I saw two flavors of Lundberg Rice Cakes that were new to me: Organic Hemp-a-licious and Organic koku seaweed. I picked the sea weed one because I have been conscienciously adding more sea vegetables to my diet lately.

The Lundberg line-up including Hemp-a-licious, which I thought I might try.

The Lundberg line-up at Whole Foods Market.

“Hmm.” I thought, “these are pretty sweet. How come?”

How come. HOW COME? Hello! . . .  Because they have cane sugar in them!

If this doesn’t shock you, believe me I understand. The quality of food in our so-called healthy foods stores is rapidly spiralling in the wrong direction. I read food labels no matter where I’m shopping. I just didn’t think I had to read this one on the Lundberg Rice Cakes.

But I sure should have. I threw the seaweed rice cakes out. Actually, seaweed can help your body get rid of things like excess dairy and can help you re-balance your body when you have been eating sugar. BUT NOT IF THERE IS SUGAR RIGHT THERE IN IT!

Cane sugar in seaweed rice cakes!  Are you kidding me?  Eldon and Harlan Lundberg must be rolling in their graves!

I checked out some other flavors in the Lundberg lineup to see if they had sugar, too. Several did—such as the Organic Hemp-A-Licious. Guess I won’t be trying that one after all, boys. Organic Sesame Tamari? It has sugar and it didn’t used to. Organic Sweet Chile Rice Cakes? Yup, it has sugar and brown rice syrup. (What is the point of that? Can someone please explain?)

There are also some flavors that still do not have any cane syrup in them, but they are in the minority these days down on ol’ Lundberg Farms.

I’m disappointed in the Lundbergs, no doubt about it. But I am also going to continue to buy their excellent products that I consider worth eating like their organic rice, their organic brown rice syrup and their rice cakes that don’t have sugar in them. Ultimately, I can do without the rice cake and stick with the whole grain brown rice.

After all, Lundberg Farms has played a very big role in promoting organic, sustainable farming and they still do. They have done as much for the expansion of the natural food industry as most any other company. They take a stand against GMO’s and I applaud them for that. Perhaps they figure a little sugar in some of the rice cakes to keep the bottom line from crashing is a price worth paying in order to continue holding the line against powerful enemies like Monsanto.

Well I don’t agree. Tell the Lundberg boys they are sliding down a slippery slope—the slope that places profit over quality. But actually, WHO is sliding down that slope?

Is it Lundberg Farms? Or is it us? Would it be a good idea to boycott this company for putting cane syrup in their rice cakes? Or would it be better to not buy those particular products and continue buying their fine, organic, sugarless, rice products? Should we “pick our battles” as they say? Or have we underestimated the hold the sugar industry has on us and our economy?

You tell me. I, for one, will continue to vote with my dollars. But it is a tricky business. I go in my Whole Foods store and week after week they have discontinued items I bought regularly and they have filled the shelf space with new products, many of which I will never buy because of what’s in them. They do this because these products are “what sell,” explains the Customer Service representative. I get it. There’s only so much space on the shelf and they have got to move their inventory and make a profit.

I wouldn’t want a company like Lundberg Farms or Whole Foods to go out of business. Then where would we be? I have been putting in more time to shop at the smaller health food chains and a local co-op that often have some of those hard-to-find products and I try to find time to go to local grower’s markets when they’re open. My voting dollar has a little more power in these smaller arenas, I feel.

But I do have the ability to do more than vote with my dollar and so do you! I also “vote” with my voice, my blog and any other appropriate communication channel. I talk to someone at Whole Foods customer service frequently. I tell them what the problem is and sometimes they bring something back onto the shelf that is of far better quality than what they had. Sometimes I talk to other shoppers. Most of them are in there because they do want to eat healthier food and they simply don’t know their way around yet.  I’ve helped a few and have learned a lot myself from doing that.

At the end of the day, I don’t know how much difference my actions will make. But that doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying. Been doing this since my childhood days as a member of the United Farm Workers Union.

I am putting my shoulders to the wheel with a lot of other individuals who have already made a big difference and we are going to just keep going! The question I first asked was, Can We Effectively ‘Vote with Our Dollars?’  Yes, if enough of us get busy telling the story so we have lots of votes.

And, I am going to write a letter to those wayward Lundberg brothers.

Lars prefers yummy jam on his rice cakes. Mmm, Cherry jam is a good choice, Lars!

Lars prefers yummy jam on his rice cakes. Mmm, Cherry jam is a good choice, Lars!

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I digress. (An Enormous Understatement)

Growing up eating the Standard American Diet of meat, dairy and sugar was probably at least a little better than the way kids eat today what with all the chemicalized and fake foods, although I did my best to go to the farthest extremes possible such as the Saturday morning ritual of eating as many Aunt Jemima pancakes with not-real-maple syrup as my little tummy (which was getting to be a big tummy) could hold. Never got past eight.

I loved cooking from a young age and I have always described my foray into cooking as being the first meal I ever made at the tender age of ten when I cooked my Daddy a lovely meatloaf with instant mashed potatoes and frozen peas. But that isn’t when I started “cooking.” Much earlier, I would climb up on a kitchen chair to reach the top of the refrigerator where the Arnold’s Bakery bread was kept and I would pull that down and make myself numerous butter and sugar sandwiches and stuff them down. At night while my parents were asleep.

Meanwhile my Daddy was worried about how chubby I was getting but I was not the least concerned. He would make sure I got plenty of good, solid protein in the form of charcoal-grilled steaks and baloney sandwiches while Mom made sure I got plenty of vegetables in the form of canned green beans and frozen vegetable medley. She was fascinated by food inventions and food trends one of which was the “cannibal sandwich.” Sorry to have to tell you this, but it was raw ground beef with a lot of raw onions and hot mustard on deli rye bread. I loved it.

Somehow I made it through my teen years without becoming a poster child for obesity though I was big enough that I felt more comfortable making my own clothing instead of shopping. I made all my important clothes such as prom dresses. I had plenty of friends and boyfriends and even though I did wish I could be thinner, there was something that seemed to make up for it all. I was voluptuous.

I continued on through college during which I ate like a lumber jack (interspersed with crash dieting) and continued my culinary experimentation every weekend making the most incredible foods I could imagine and after college, when I started making money, I indulged in finding the highest quality ingredients available. Back then “highest quality” meant going to a little local butcher shop and buying their most expensive item which was milk-fed veal to make veal piccante. By this time I was also old enough to drink alcohol which amazingly I had never tried until I was actually of legal age—21—but if I thought cooking was an infinite adventure, let me tell you there is a whole world of cocktail making that I discovered, especially the mixed, blended, creamy, sweet ones, but also the aged, imported and specially brewed liquors and beers. And there was cheap, sweet Scuppernong wine. Interesting yes, but not an endless adventure for me. I lost my interest in mixology and alcohol. It was just a short-term digression.

Then one day I was sauteeing my milk-fed veal and thought, “I’m not too happy and I think my life would be better if I changed how I ate.” Honest-to-god I hadn’t read anything, heard anything on TV and I didn’t know anybody who was into health food. I just had the thought and once I had that consideration—that I might feel happier if I changed my food—I took a complete 180. I have written about this before.

When I say I took a complete 180, I probably should say I moved to another planet as far as food was concerned because I found my way into a macrobiotic study house where I lived with other students of macrobiotics and the teachers who owned the house provided 100% fabulous meals made with whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits that were all organic, whole and had not one milligram of chemicals or sugar. If you lived there, you didn’t just wander into the kitchen in the middle of the night and make yourself something. You ate what they served and it was an honor to be allowed or even invited to help cook—which I eventually was invited and from there helped teach the cooking classes and became a cooking teacher in my own right for the next 25 years or so.

What’s macrobiotics? The word, coined by Georges Ohsawa, literally means Great Life. As a food philosophy, it could be said that one lives a greater or fuller life by looking at the whole picture to achieve balance and health. Whole foods are a big part of this and how to achieve the right balance is a big part of this. For much more information, look here.

This is where I really got my balance back or more accurately, got it for the first time. I knew how to choose and prepare foods to create the effect I desired within myself and for my family. I was also exposed to a spiritual philosophy that was my first entrance into understanding my own spirituality. This is another major layer of digression. From these beginnings, I realized I was looking for answers to the “big questions of life” and I kept looking until I found them in my current religious practice.

By the time I met my Hubbin’, I had been 100% macrobiotic for thirty years. He was a meat ‘n potatoes guy but he had earlier dated someone who was macrobiotic and he was familiar with the food and liked it quite a bit.

I’ll never forget the first meal I made for him hoping that he would not be turned off and we would have future dates! I made a deep-fried tofu stew with brown rice and some vegetable side dishes and some kind of dessert. Pie, I believe.

He did like it! We continued eating grains and beans and veggies at home and he would get his “fix” of meats and other things whenever he ate in a restaurant. Which was mostly all the time since Hubbin’ didn’t cook or even heat up leftovers. A bachelor for many years before me—cooking and reheating just weren’t domestic activities he’d pursued. But God Bless ‘im! At home he continued to love whatever I made and he bravely tried all kinds of things that he’d never eaten before. One of his favorite things was (and still is) freshly cooked brown rice with chopped roasted almonds on top.

We were hummin’ along just fine until I had to go to Los Angeles for training for my job and my meals were included in the program. The food served was one specific menu for each meal and most all of it was excellent in quality, and included lots of fresh vegetables, but it was by no means what I was used to. At first I tried to compromise as little as possible and eat what I could, but I was there for four very busy months and I got hungry! So I ate whatever was served.

Needless to say, that was quite a regression for me. When I returned home I was still craving meat and dairy food and even though I continued making brown rice and vegetables, I was also making the other stuff. My kids just about died of shock when they heard I’d come home and served Swedish Meatballs for dinner. As time passed the organic version of the Standard American Diet reared its ugly head more often and whole grains were no longer the stars of the show.

Both my husband and I were very busy with work and activities and it became more and more convenient to buy food out somewhere much of the time. This cannot be done on a regular basis and still eat very well unless you have a boatload of organic, health-conscious restaurants around which we did not. And even if we did have those—such as the deli and prepared food sections of large “healthy” grocery stores, you are at the mercy of “what sells.” And “what sells” in today’s health food store is largely not what I would characterize as “very healthy food.” And that subject, my friends, is another major digression I shall not take up here.

Hubbin’ had several moderately alarming health issues. I got fat. But I could also see the decline of my own health which I conveniently chalked up to “aging” until I was willing to confront what really happened. I lost 25 pounds on my own and then I digressed (again) into a very personalized, specifically prescribed dietary program and lost another 70 pounds. To be sure, there were lots of benefits to doing this program. Then Hubbin’ did it too and I did it some more. It was like a little respite from having to make any decisions at all about food. We just ate what we were supposed to and lost weight.

Does this sound appealing to you? Are you enticed by the idea of a workable weight loss program that uses only real food and no pills or potions? I understand. I was too. I had digressed so very far from “balance.” And you may be tempted to ask what the program was and where can you find out especially when I tell you that it did entail some very well-researched data on how to naturally balance hormones with just food.

What I got out of it was that I was again eating a lot of fresh vegetables daily–more than I had for some time. And I learned exactly what types of foods will cause me to gain weight. All of that was useful not to mention that I did lose weight and so did Hubbin’. But the program had no grains in it except for a few certain types of crackers. All the carbohydrates came from vegetables and fruits and the rest of the menu was low-fat dairy, meat, fish and poultry. This is not a sustainable way to eat long-term. No it isn’t.

I began noticing some health deficits that I didn’t like. The day I finished the program and began eating a tiny amount of whole grains or bread, the bad symptoms went away. The day I went back on the program to do it with my husband the bad symptoms came back. I knew I was not going to go down this road any further.

So once again, I digressed. And what do you know? I knew what to do exactly. I knew what type of “vegetarian or vegan” food would cause me to gain weight and have problems and I knew what it was about the no-carb meaty program that helped me to lose weight. (It wasn’t the meat and it wasn’t the “no grains”. And I knew that I could easily return to whole, plant-based foods and get it right and have it fit into my busy life and regain all the benefits and lose all the deficits. I knew I could cook my little heart out and keep on creating amazing food that I enjoy more than any restaurant and that Hubbin’ will also love and benefit from.

I also don’t have to worry about how much food I am eating. I find I have returned to “balance” very quickly despite the long and winding digressions. The transformation, particularly in how I feel every day, is nothing short of spectacular. And all that cooking each step of the way no matter what I was making is all part of the package that I call my “expertise.” Today I do not consider I have problems related to aging. Today I am grateful for every food experience I ever had because all of it contributed to the know-how I have acquired.

If you actually read the whole thing, I hope it was worth it. I’ve been wanting to write it for some time. And the funny thing is, as much as I love cooking and love eating and love sharing what I know about these subjects, my life is not all about food. Not in the least. I would describe it this way: I am happily and creatively complying with the fact that I have a body which requires certain things to remain healthy and alive. And having the know-how about this frees me up for the much broader, wide-reaching endeavors that I pursue.

Choosing healthy food and good nutrition is very therapeutic, but it is not the main event of living life. Cooking for me is a creative outlet more than anything else. Understanding what can be created—now there’s a fruitful digression!

Thanks for listening!

It was a long story! That’s what can happen when one digresses. And no pictures, either. So here’s one for you. Thanks for listening!

The Whole Food and Nothing But the Food

Today the term “whole food” is tossed around quite a bit and it sounds very healthy and much better than just “natural food.”  There’s even a huge chain of stores with that name.  But what does it mean, really?

Whole foods are foods that are unprocessed and unrefined, or processed and refined as little as possible, before being consumed. Whole foods typically do not contain added ingredients, such as salt, carbohydrates, or fat. Examples of whole foods include unpolished grains, beans, fruits and vegetables.

The term “whole food” came into use around 1970, which makes a lot of sense to me in the broad scheme of things.  I have a friend who grew up on a farm in the ’50’s.  She would tell me about all the vegetables and fruits they raised and all about the chickens, pigs and cows.  They provided the eggs, the meat and the milk.  Virtually all the food they ate came from these “whole food” sources and processing them was minimal and done right at home on the farm.

It was truly whole food!  My friend’s family did not slaughter an animal and then eat only a two-pound package of some of the parts.  They used all the parts and they used methods for storing such as drying, smoking, pickling and freezing.  When they milked the cows they did not homogenize it and drink only a two-percent version of the milk.  They used the whole thing and made their milk, cream, butter, buttermilk, etc from that whole food source.

English: Young cattle – the milk cows at the o...
Image via Wikipedia  Really?  You’re going to drink the milk and eat the whole cow too? Wholly Cow!

The twentieth century had brought us all kinds of prepared, packaged, processed food products that we could just buy in our grocery store instead of growing and raising and preparing them ourselves.  These were not, and are not today, “whole foods”– no matter what the name of the store is where you bought them!

By the sixties and seventies we came full circle once again, looking for a healthier, more natural way to eat.  Terms like “natural,” “whole food” and “organic” began cropping up.

(I’m skipping over a LOT of food history here, and perhaps I will write more about that later.  You might want to check out Dr. Neal Barnard’s books for some of this. I’m also not promoting drinking milk.  That’s another story involving the U.S.D.A, the U.S. Dairy Industry and billions of dollars.)

No, not everyone is to going to go back to farming and raising all their own food and that’s okay.  However, if we are going to buy whole and organic foods from our “natural health food stores” we need to know some definitions.

I did not find a legal definition for “whole food” and there definitely isn’t one for the word “natural” or “natural food.”  Natural food means to me, whole and organic food.  It is in its natural state and wasn’t raised with pesticides and other unnatural chemicals and it is not highly processed.  That’s probably what you think, too.  But in the world of advertising and marketing, “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean that.  So beware.

The United States Food and Drug Administration defines whole grains as cereal grains containing the bran, endosperm and germ of the original grain.  That’s a mouthful!  These are the layers that are inside the grain.  It would be better to think of some examples:

Brown rice is hulled and the rest of the grain is left intact whereas white rice is hulled and has the underneath layers–the bran and the germ–also removed and you get the white part left (which is, by the way, called the endosperm.)  The brown rice is whole, the white rice is not.

Brown rice.
Image via Wikipedia  Some good-looking brown rice here.

Organic unbleached white flour is not a whole food.  Organic whole wheat flour is not a whole food, but is much less processed.  100% whole wheat flour is often stone-ground and still has the bran and the germ in it.  Whole wheat–the actual grain–is whole food.  So when you’re buying your “whole wheat” bread in the health food store, what does the label actually say?  Is the ingredient “wheat flour?”  That’s not necessarily “whole” wheat!  It has to actually say, “whole wheat” to be closer to whole food.

What about that bottle of sweet, organic, unfiltered apple juice?  Not whole.  But the apples it came from, definitely whole!

Let’s look at this very simple example:  You’re going to buy yourself a bunch of organic carrots.  Great!  The display is beautiful and the carrots are piled up all nicely arranged and they’ve even gone to the trouble of taking off the end where the green part was attached to the orange part . . . Wait.  What?

Manageable or Maimed?
Whole Carrots

Go for the whole carrot, I always say!  You can saute those carrot slices up in a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper, and you can wash and mince up those greens and toss them in for the last couple of minutes and you’ve got yourself a very colorful, delicious whole food dish.

In my universe, “organic food” falls under the category of “whole food.”  Organic food production is a heavily regulated Industry in the United States and in several other countries.  Organic farmers have to comply with strict guidelines to be able to claim their food or livestock is organic.  Generally, organic food is food raised without the use of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers.  Organic food is not supposed to contain genetically modified organisms, industrial solvents, or chemical additives and it is not supposed to be irradiated.  Organic farmers are also required to use farming practices which foster recycling of resources and promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity.

My first-hand experience with using organic whole food is that it is very economical and it provides much better nutrition than non-organic foods.  I fed three growing boys with almost all organic food and I can attest that on the few occasions when I didn’t have organic food and had to cook with non-organic, they ate twice as much, snacked all the time and never seemed as satisfied as they did (and we all did) when eating organic.

I think you can take it from here.  I’m not saying “NEVER” eat anything that is not 100% whole and unprocessed. But I am saying it is a good thing to start looking for more truly whole foods and use them to move toward a much more balanced, satisfying and healthy cuisine.