Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Problem with Health Food

I visited a place yesterday called The Herb Shop, in Orem. It's a quaint little place right next door to a Nickelcade. I believe I may have mentioned this place briefly in my search for lemongrass. I walked in and immediately navigated to the book area. I love cookbooks. It's an illness, I know. As I looked over the cookbooks, a smallish woman walked up and asked if she could help with anything. I told her that I would need her help in just a moment, and continued to look at the cookbooks. There were a lot of books on raw foods. But I'll leave that discussion for another day.

When I finished looking at the cookbooks, I found the woman and let her know what I was looking for. I told her that my current obsession was frozen desserts, and following the recent success of my ginger and lemongrass ice cream, I was interested in all sorts of other herbal flavor infusions, and what better place to find them than an herb shop? I was hoping she would lead me to a few herbs that she thought made excellent teas. Instead, she led me to the oils and extracts. She told me that she recommended these because they were designed for cooking. I told her that they weren't quite what I was looking for. She suggested that perhaps one of the many books they had might have some good suggestions. We looked through a "raw foods" book, which seemed to have several recipes that didn't look the least bit raw, and many, many recipes which called for vanilla extract, which is definitely not raw in commercial form.

I told her that I would really love to see some herbs that made great teas. Finally, she led me to the expansive wall of herbs and started pointing out several that she thought I might be interested in. I would ask what each one tasted like, and she would go into detail on what medicinal uses they were good for. This one is good for the heart, this one is good for the liver, this one is good for pregnancies. It wasn't long before I noticed a pattern: she knew what the health properties of each one was, but she didn't seem to know what any of them tasted like, or perhaps was unable to describe the tastes to me. That seemed odd. At one point we had a discussion about sassafras and sarsaparilla, and how they were used to make root beer (FYI: root beer means it's made using either or both of those. Don't worry, she didn't know either).

It seemed so strange to me that she would be so completely unfamiliar with the flavors of these herbs and spices. As a chef, I'm used to using a variety of herbs and spices, and in some cases, basing an entire dish (such as curry) off of those instead of what one might consider to be "primary ingredints" (such as chicken or veggies). To spend so much time around so many herbs and spices, and not know anything about their flavor seems a completely foreign concept to me. I'm all for health benefits, but I'm more about flavor. The most important thing is that something tastes good. If it happens to have health benefits as well, bonus! In fact, said health benefits make it just that much more likely for me to used them.

And that's when it occurred to me: the problem with health food. Those who formulate health food are going about it all wrong. They focus on health benefits first, and if flavor ever becomes a consideration, its priority is never more than second. And then they wonder why so many people stick with their fried foods and such. Fried food tastes good! Why would they choose to munch on a few bland pieces of spinach instead? Especially when the spinach has some lousy "salad dressing" that's less flavorful and healthy than a chicken fried steak. Or even worse, the spinach has the life cooked out of it, along with any nutrients that ever existed.

I'm not saying that the health benefits of a food should be ignored, of course. I think they're extremely important. But if flavor doesn't come first, I won't feel bad when the guy chowing the 20 oz sirloin is laughing at you. But maybe you should take a different approach. Find a dish that you like (entirely for the flavor) and look at it. Is there a different method of preparing it that is perhaps a little healthier? Are there any ingredients that can be swapped out without lowering the quality of the dish? Take chicken cordon bleu, for example. Most of the time when I see it, it's being pan fried. Why not bake it in the oven instead?

You could do the same thing with chicken fingers. Instead of dipping them in that batter and then into the fry oil, try this: dredge them in flour, shaking off the excess, coat in an egg wash, then dip into crumbled up croutons and bake in the oven. You just upped the healthiness, and it still tastes pretty dang good. In fact, I like it even better. It's not hard, people. After a while, you'll get the hang of it. And maybe, just maybe you'll be able to start converting more of the world to healthier food, if not health food.


  1. This is the exact problem I face at Whole Foods when I search for allergy-free foods. For some reason the companies that make natural foods with no allergens never bother to add flavor back in. Wheat-free/gluten-free, corn-free, soy-free, etc... frequently taste like cardboard and have the consistency of shoe leather. Emily is learning that the hard way right now. Cooking from scratch always tastes better than the stuff I buy at the store.

  2. Oh man. I was thinking about you and Emily when I posted that rant. Why don't people take these things into consideration? These so-called "foods" that they produce are seemingly engineered for everything but flavor. I realize that things like healthfulness and shelf life are important. But come on! Cardboard is not a valid flavor profile!

  3. I figured you might be. Tonight I made delicious chocolate raspberry brownies from scratch. Yummy!

    I coated the brownies with Stone Wall Kitchen's Raspberry Champaign jam just before they went in the oven. Fortunately I can still buy that here. I got used to going to their flagship store in York, ME.

    Scott complained about all the calories, but he was first in line for two brownies with vanilla ice cream when they came out of the oven.


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