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Four Easy Ways to Rid Your Life (and Your Food) of Additives and Their Chemical Aftertaste

While it may be difficult to completely purge your diet of additives, there are simple ways to add flavor to your food without adding chemicals. Food gurus Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough explain how in Real Food Has Curves: How to Get Off Processed Food, Lose Weight, and Love What You Eat.

Our brains process information, not nutrition. Regardless of whether our stomachs are getting the satisfaction they expect, if the chemical information in our food says sweet or tasty or flavorful, we chow down because our brains read taste first and foremost, based on memories of pleasure. Faked out, we then don’t listen to what’s going on down in our enteric nervous system.

For example, when we eat full-sugar, high-calorie foods, our brains sense the sweet, and all sorts of biochemical processes lurch into gear, preparing our bodies for lots of calories. Unfortunately, those very same processes come into play when we drink a diet soda. Our brains sense sweet — although fake — yet the real sugar never materializes. So our bodies are left waiting for calories. The artificial stuff has then broken the link between high-calorie foods and satiety. Faked out to expect more, we reach for more. And more.

We’ve also trained ourselves to recognize the fake as the real. We’ve already seen the chocolate flavor in puddings. But what about fake vanilla, lemon, lime, cherry, watermelon, apple, orange, or banana? And nut flavors are often fake these days — or added to processed goods to enhance the taste of mealy, poor-quality nuts.

We’ve also let our brains fake out our stomachs when it comes to canned beef broth. It should be made with pan drippings — which are ridiculously expensive to produce on a mass scale. Therefore, many canned broths are stocked with monosodium glutamate (MSG), a chemical compound that we’ve now learned to interpret as beef flavor.

We’ve bought a bill of goods about how fake stuff is less fattening, less troublesome, less time-consuming, or just less costly — when in fact it may be worse for us, more costly (in the long run), and to add insult to injury, more fattening. But aren’t all these additives safe? You might ask.

The short answer is yes.

But it’s complicated.

There have been all sorts of investigative reports about additives — like the story of BHA and BHT. In 2007, the U.S. government ran tests and discovered that these two chemicals, long declared safe, can in fact react with vitamin C (ascorbic acid) or citric acid, added or naturally occurring in fruit and carbonated beverages. In the end, the lethal combo spawns benzene, a known carcinogen.

No one knows how much benzene we’ve imbibed over the years. Beverage manufacturers have since reformulated their products. Still, we have to wonder when the next shoe will fall.

But let’s be generous and give every additive in our food a bye. If we were resourceful, we could locate each one’s original safety test. And we would find them cleared one by one. So is our short answer still yes?

Unfortunately, no.

Because no one has tested all those additives and preservatives for long-term use. They were given a human trial of forty days, three months, maybe a year, but not ten years, twenty years, thirty years, or more.

Except in us. We’re that test. No one really knows what those chemicals or their broken-down residues do after years and years in our bodies, stored in the cellular structures we call ourselves.

And more tellingly, no one knows what those chemicals do in combination with each other, as with BHA or BHT and citric acid. Sure, a lab isolates an additive, tests it in rats, then humans, and finally releases it to the market. But what about that additive or preservative in combination with all the other chemicals we ingest? The residual antibiotics in our meat? The fertilizers in the animals’ feed? And every drug we take? The statins? The aspirin? The antacids?

What about these little chemical experiments we call our bodies?

The First Solution: Real Chocolate Pudding

Nothing’s more real or elemental. So make a batch and savor it. This version has an intense chocolate flavor, not sweet so much as satisfying, and a silky, luxurious texture.

2 large eggs
1 ounce unsweetened or baking chocolate, hacked up into little pieces
2 cups low-fat milk
1/3 cup paked light brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

  1. Whisk the eggs in a large bowl. Give your forearm a workout to get the eggs smooth and creamy, without any floating bits of translucent egg white.
  2. Put the milk, brown sugar, cocoa powder, flour, chocolate, vanilla, and salt in a large saucepan over medium heat and whisk until the chocolate melts and the mixture just begins to bubble. Cook, whisking while it bubbles lightly for 30 seconds.
  3. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk half of this chocolate mixture into the eggs in a slow, steady stream until smooth. Whisk this combined mixture back into the remaining chocolate mixture in the saucepan, then set that pan over very low heat. If you’re using an electric range, it may be helpful to use a second burner, just now turned to low. Whisk constantly over the heat for 2 minutes, reaching into the edges of the pan and letting the pudding come to only the barest bubble. If the pudding starts to bubble, reduce the heat even more or take the pan off the heat and keep whisking for a few seconds to cool it down.
  4. Pour into four small ramekins or custard cups. Refrigerate until set, about 1 hour.

Makes 4 Servings

The Second Solution: Your Imagination

As you savor that chocolate pudding, imagine yourself as someone who relishes real food like this — someone who looks for it, understands why it’s important, and won’t settle for anything less.

What would it mean for your daily life? How would you approach dinner tonight? Would you put down the take-out menus to search for better options? Would you forget about making dinner out of half a box of crackers and some processed cheese spread?

This imaginative act is the framework of your future decisions. Hold it in your mind, a picture of who you can be.

The Third Solution: Take Your Glasses
to the Grocery Store

To fulfill your vision, become a better shopper — which means you must become a better reader. All the information you need is on the cans, boxes, and packages. Bruce and I found it on the packages and containers of our chocolate puddings. In fact, all manufacturers are required to label what they make: to list the ingredients and nutritional information, among other things. Read those lists to find the fake-outs — and real food, too.

Take twenty minutes out of your day to make a trip to the grocery store, your glasses in hand if you need them. Don’t shop; instead, stroll the aisles and look at the ingredients on random products. Read the labels on the frozen dinners, the cookies, even the stuff in the meat case. What’s in that package of premarinated ribs? How many of those ingredients do you recognize? How many do you understand?

Be wary of any bursts or call-outs on the label: High in Fiber! Sugar-Free! Fat-Free! These often indicate that either something else is altered (it’s high in fiber but also in sugar) or that a real food has been replaced with a fake substitute. An important source of vitamin C can simply mean the product is doped with sugars of all sorts — or even worse, that any real fruit has been replaced by chemical fake-outs and the C then added back for the health claim.

Yes, you’ll find lots of processed crackers with chemical additives; but there are also others without any binders or emulsifiers. Right next to the processed chicken breasts with the chemical-laced marinades are real chicken breasts. Right next to the juices with artificial sweeteners and thickeners are the ones made from all juice.

You’ll soon notice that one drawback to real food is its price. There are a few ways around this problem:

  • Products go on sale occasionally. Stock up when you have the chance.
  • Check out some Latin American, Mexican, or Chinese supermarkets. You’ll be surprised at the low prices, particularly in the meat, dairy, and produce sections.
  • Search out manufacturers’ websites for coupons.

Not to make light of a very real problem, but the cost might help you value real food all the more.

The best news of all? You’ll need less of better quality foods to feel more satisfied.

The Fourth Solution:
More Flavor with Every Bite

Much of the fake stuff has been fabricated to put missing flavors into the chemical concoctions that have been passed off as real food. Since you’ve already become someone on the lookout for subtle flavor overtones, one way to resist the fake is to also relish big, bold flavors.

The best way to do that? Savor herbs and spices that bring lots of flavor to every bite. Use them in your cooking; find small restaurants where they are equally valued. Or go over the top and carry little bottles of dried oregano and chile powder with you!

One note: relishing herbs and spices isn’t automatic. None is preset in the brain. You have to learn their deep satisfaction by creating more memory tracks associated with pleasure.

Go to your spice rack or pantry, open the bottles of dried spices and herbs, and breathe in deeply. Get those flavors wired into your brain: nutmeg, cinnamon, tarragon, thyme, saffron, chile powder, oregano. Practice this every once in a while, just for a few minutes at a time. It’ll help you become someone who savors and anticipates those very flavors. (And by the way, if a bottle doesn’t smell like much, it’s probably old and needs to be replaced. Dried herbs and spices can go bland after a year or so on the shelf.)

Here’s a fun trip: find the nearest Penzey’s, a spice purveyor with outlets across the country (to locate one, look at www At the store, you can sample hundreds of spices and blends. First, smell the simpler spices — like the several types of cinnamon. Then check out some of the bolder blends. Buy a few that you’d like to try. Now that’s a lovely outing!

Now That We’ve Got You Thinking About Big, Bold Flavors . . .

No more chemical aftertaste! There’s a goal. Try a couple of these recipes. All are heavy on the herbs and spices. Think about the flavors you’ve crafted in your meal. Set the table, pour yourself something to drink, and settle in.

Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough are the authors of Real Food Has Curves: How to Get Off Processed Food, Lose Weight, and Love What You Eat (Copyright © 2010 by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough)and numerous other cookbooks, including the bestselling, eleven-volume Ultimate Cook Book series and Cooking Know-How, the winner of the 2009 Gourmand World Awards for the best American cookbook for easy recipes. They are contributing editors to EatingWell, online columnists for Weight Watchers, and regular contributors to Fine Cooking, Relish, Cooking Light, and The Washington Post. They live in Litchfield County, Connecticut.



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