The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Why Is The Smell Of Bacon Cooking So Irresistible? Science Has The Answer

The Earthly Explanation of a Heavenly Scent

Okay. You all know how I feel about my bacon. You probably feel the same way or you wouldn't be reading this.

For as long as I can remember, the lure of cooking bacon has drawn me to the kitchen. In fact, bacon is the first thing I ever learned to cook back at the tender age of seven. More than fifty years later, I'm still cooking it and it still calls to me as it sizzles in a pan or on a flattop. I've often referred to the salty, porky taste of bacon as “ambrosia” – the ancient “food of the gods.” Whether you're talking about high-end artisan bacon like the stuff I get from Benton's in Madisonville, Tennessee or supermarket fare from Oscar Meyer, bacon really does make everything better.

But, taste aside, what is it about the smell of bacon being cooked that is so irresistible? You can be in the next room, the basement, the garage, or out plowing the back forty and as soon as you get a whiff of bacon cooking in the kitchen, you start to drool and salivate and your brain goes into a gear completely dedicated to obtaining and consuming bacon. The shifter on your car's transmission reads P R N D. In the case of your brain, that translates to Pork Right Now Dammit.

I like to think of it as a sensory gift from Mother Nature, carried on an ethereal zephyr to the very depths of my soul. But leave it to cold, hard science to come up with a chemical explanation. It all has to to with the Maillard reaction and an estimated one hundred-fifty organic aroma compounds. In case you missed out on Food Science 101, the Maillard reaction is what makes certain foods turn a nice golden, crusty brown. This process only works with amino acid compounds,such as those found in meat, heated to certain temperatures. As I keep screaming at idiot TV chefs, “caramelization,” which involves the pyrolysis of sugars, is a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT process. Are you listening, Michael Symon? But I digress.

Tell you what, rather than reading all the mind-numbing terminology about hydrocarbons and aldehydes and pyradine and pyrazine, why don't you just click on the link below and watch a little two-minute video produced on You Tube by The American Chemical Society and Compound Interest? Just ignore the way the girl in the voiceover pronounces "Maillard." It's supposed to be "my-YAR" rather than "MEE-yard," but she means well.

Way back in 1697, William Congreve famously wrote, “Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast, To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.” Yeah, maybe. But ol' Bill never took into account the smell of cooking bacon, or he would have written something entirely more appropriate. So do your part to promote world peace and harmony. Throw open all your windows and doors and cook some bacon.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Movie Review: Jon Favreau's “Chef”

A Deliciously Warm and Funny Look At Life On The Line

If you cook professionally, if you have ever cooked professionally, or if you ever plan to cook professionally, you need to see “Chef.” If you cook at home, you need to see “Chef.” If you can't boil water but just like to eat food, you need to see “Chef.” If you have kids, you need to see “Chef.” Let me just sum it up more succinctly: If you're breathing, you need to see “Chef.”

Producer/Director/Writer/Actor Jon Favreau's latest indie opus is one of the best movies I've seen this year. Or, in fact, in many years. Billed as a comedy, this film is that and so much more. Yeah, it's a moving about cooking. But it also pulls back the curtain on the culinary industry and the lives of the people involved therein. It's about passion and dreams and friends and family. “Chef” packs a lot of life into 114 minutes.

“Chef” was released on the coasts on May 9 and went into wider circulation a couple of weeks later. I say “wider,” but not necessarily “wide.” I had been jonesing to see “Chef” ever since I first read about the project in the development stages. But, man, did I have to hunt it down. I checked with the 10-plex in my small hometown. No dice. “Sorry, we probably won't be getting that one.” Okay, so I started looking around. Numerous Internet searches later, I finally found a showing at a theater 65 miles away. I went. It was well worth the drive.

Jon Favreau is Chef Carl Casper, a man who is passionate about his food. But he finds himself shackled by a short-sighted restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) who just wants him to cook the same food he's been serving for the past ten years. When a well-known critic (Oliver Platt) takes Chef Casper to task for his dated, passionless food, the chef not only loses his cool, he loses his job, too. But, with the help of family and friends, he acquires a food truck in Miami and sets out on a cross-country trip back to Los Angeles. Along the way, he reignites his passion for food and rekindles his relationship with those closest to him, especially his young son, Percy, expertly played by 11-year-old Emjay Anthony and his ex-wife Inez, portrayed by the beautiful Sofia Vergara.

Among the friends who prop Carl up and propel him on his voyage of discovery – with stops in New Orleans and Austin – are John Leguizamo as Martin, the sous-chef who quits his own job to help Carl find his way. Robert Downey, Jr. is Marvin, the guy who gets Carl started in the right direction. The fast and witty by-play between Tony and Happy – er, I mean, between Marvin and Carl is strongly reminiscent of some of the great scenes from “Iron Man.” Scarlett Johansson as Molly rounds out the all-star cast.

Favreau looks so much like a chef, it's hard to believe he's only playing one on the big screen. He's got the attitude, he's got the scars, he's got the lingo, and he's got the moves. The fact that real-life super chef Roy Choi, himself one of the founders of the food truck movement, served as a consultant on the film probably has a lot to do with that. But the master found an apt pupil; Favreau's on-screen knife skills are simply astonishing. And the way he dances the intricate ballet of the kitchen would lead one to believe that he has spent many, many years there, rather than just the few months involved in filming.

Favreau's chef character is one that is all too familiar in the punishing world of the professional kitchen. He's lost his wife and is practically a stranger to his young son as he lives his life in pursuit of his craft, a pursuit that has led him to less-than upscale living conditions and has often hit roadblocks and detours thrown at him by those who do not understand or share his passion. But although Carl Casper may be down, he's not out and he's coming back. And that comeback is filled with a wonderfully well-scripted combination of hilarious scenes, sharp, witty dialogue, and more than a few genuinely heart warming moments. It's a feel-good flick that will have you feeling good all the way home and for a long time after. And it will probably make you really hungry, too.

Written and directed by Jon Favreau and distributed by Open Road Films, “Chef” is rated “R” because it contains some of the rather salty language common to the profession it portrays. But compared to many of the action and dramatic films that get an “R” for language these days, this one is pretty mild. The soundtrack will have you rocking throughout the nearly two hours of screen time.

A few years back, Catherine Zeta Jones and Aaron Eckhart took us on a similar romp through the kitchen with “No Reservations.” Up until now, that was kind of my “go to” foodie movie. I own a DVD copy and I watch it all the time. But now it looks like a double feature might be in order. I can't wait for “Chef” to hit the DVD market. I'll be first in line to buy it so I can enjoy it over and over again. Without the 130 mile round trip.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Ragú Spaghetti Sauce Sold; THAT'S.......Japanese?

Does anybody remember those great old TV commercials for Ragú Spaghetti Sauce that featured the tagline “THAT's Italian!”? Like the one where “Cousin Marco” came all the way from Italy and, after feasting on linguine drowned in a potful of Ragú poured over the top of the pasta in a way no Italian would ever dream of doing, warmly proclaimed “It feels like home.” I do. But based on the news I read earlier today, I guess we will all have to start saying, “Sore wa Itariada.” (That's Japanese for “That's Italian,” in case you were wondering.)

Signore and signora Cantisano must be stirring in their graves.

Like many things co-opted and corrupted by the American marketplace, Ragú Spaghetti Sauce used to be the real deal once upon a time. Giovanni and Assunta Cantisano were Italian immigrants living in Rochester, New York. In 1937, they started making spaghetti sauce in their basement and selling it out of the trunk of their car. This was just a few years after Chef Ettore Boiardi, aka “Chef Boyardee,” started sending patrons home from his restaurant in Cleveland with little jars of his soon-to-be-eponymous sauce. Anyway, it wasn't long before the Cantisanos set up a factory to mass produce the stuff for a burgeoning American market. And then the corporate takeovers and mergers began. Chesebrough-Ponds, a conjunction of the original makers of “Vaseline Petroleum Jelly” and “Pond's Cold Cream,” bought the brand in 1969. They were subsequently swallowed up by Unilever, itself a conglomerate of the British soap maker “Lever Brothers” and “Margarine Unie,” a Dutch manufacturer of margarine. So now we have our “authentic” Italian ragù, lovingly concocted from an old Italian family recipe, being produced by people who make lubricants, face cream, and soap. Oh, and margarine, which, when you think of it, is not all that far removed from the other three chemical products. And if you have a really sharp eye and an incredibly picky nature, you'll notice that the diacritical mark over the “u” in the commercial sauce is an acute accent, while the mark over the Italian word for the sauce is a grave accent. Really. I don't know why; it just is.

Somewhere in the middle of all that merging, Ragú became one of the best-selling and most recognized brands of pasta sauce in America. And the product's clever marketing campaign that began back in the 1970s indelibly established “THAT's Italian!” as a cultural icon.

And now they have sold out to the Japanese. After an exchange of $2.15 billion, Ragú (and sister label Bertolli) now belong to Japan's Mizkan, a major manufacturer of various forms of vinegar and other condiments. I guess there is some consolation in the fact that the new parent company is at least a food maker whose corporate motto is “Bringing Flavor to Life.” The sale includes processing and packaging facilities in Owensboro, KY and Stockton, CA. Unilever has dumped a number of its food brands in recent months, including Skippy Peanut Butter and Wish-Bone Salad Dressing. It also wants to slim down and get rid of Slim Fast. The company is keeping Ben & Jerry's, though. (You didn't really think the stuff was still made by two guys at a gas station in Vermont, did you?) It's all part of their efforts to “re-focus” their “food assets” and “reshape” their North American portfolio. Whatever the hell that means.

I've always liked Ragú. It's the sauce I use when I don't make my own sauce. Of course, I don't buy the junk with all the meats and cheeses and vegetables and mushrooms and such already in it. I use the “traditional” variety and add to it the fresh herbs, spices, and other ingredients I need. From that standpoint, Ragú is okay as a base sauce. The ingredients are fairly simple and straightforward: tomato puree (water, tomato paste), soybean oil, salt, sugar, dehydrated onions, extra virgin olive oil, spices, Romano cheese (part-skim milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), natural flavor. I just hope the new owners don't adulterate it with cheap or unnecessary stuff to “improve” it. There are already a few complaints among consumers that Unilever has “done something” to the recipe affecting the flavor and/or texture. Could be. Like I said, I never use it straight from the jar, so I can't really tell.

So, the “traditional” “THAT'S Italian!” spaghetti sauce you grew up on is now being made by a Japanese company. Just don't tell me if De Cecco pasta sells out to China. I don't want to know.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Re-Thinking “Farm-to-Table” Thinking

I went to a local farmers market the other day. It's something I do on a regular basis to get the freshest and best quality ingredients for my kitchen. And farmers markets are everywhere these days as the so-called “farm-to-table” concept moves from a passing fad for a few fanatical foodies to a sustainable idea for a larger portion of the populace. There are tiny markets in tiny towns and sprawling acres of market in larger cities. I'm lucky to have access to both. I went to a little market in the parking lot of a town square the other day. They had maybe six booths set up, but I still managed to come away with some fresh eggs and a nice selection of herbs for my herb garden. This week I'll be headed to “the city” and the humongous market there that is comprised of several large buildings, row upon row of open stalls, and even its own restaurant featuring a menu based on market-acquired produce.

But, thanks to a New York Times piece I just read, this time I'll have a fresh perspective on the fresh food available at the market. The article by chef Dan Barber is eye-opening even for those of us who have been marching at the front of the sustainability parade for quite awhile. I'm not going to try to parse the contents of the article here. Chef Barber wrote clearly, concisely, and well and I'm just going to link to the Sunday Review piece and let you read it for yourself. It might get you thinking in a new direction, too.

Read Dan Barber's article “What Farm-to-Table Got Wrong” at:

Monday, May 19, 2014

Arrivederci, Jerry Vale

One of the Last Great Italian-American Crooners

I was saddened to read of the death of Jerry Vale. He passed away May 18, 2014 at the age of 83.

My grandmother absolutely adored Jerry Vale. In the '60s, she wore out the grooves on several of his records. (If you're under 40, go look up Jerry Vale. If you're under 20, go look up records and grooves.)

Born in the Bronx July 8, 1930, Genaro Louis (or Luigi) Vitaliano began his career as a singer in a Mt. Vernon barbershop at age 11. He worked there as a shoe-shine boy, frequently singing for customers as he plied his trade. The more he sang, the more tips he got. His boss noticed and arranged for some music lessons from a local Italian woman. Genaro spent some time as a teenager working as an oiler with his engineer father, but he kept on singing, eventually landing jobs in supper clubs like the Enchanted Room in Yonkers, where, in 1950, he met Guy Mitchell. Mitchell introduced him to Mitch Miller, who signed him to a contract with Columbia Records, convinced him to change his name to Jerry Vale, and helped him launch a career that would carry him to the top of the pop charts. His 1953 breakthrough single “You Can Never Give Me Back My Heart” was the first of many hits recorded on more than fifty albums. The shoe-shine boy from the Bronx rose to play Carnegie Hall. Thanks to an early friendship with his idol, Frank Sinatra, Jerry worked the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas alongside the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr., Nat “King” Cole, and Jerry Lewis.

Jerry was a lifelong baseball fan. He once owned a minor-league team in Florida and in 1963 he recorded a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that included a 40-piece orchestra and backup singers as a gift to the New York Yankees. His version of the National Anthem was popular at sporting events for many years and ultimately earned a place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, NY.

A crooner of romantic ballads and pop standards like “You Don't Know Me”, Jerry also loved Italian music and showcased his ability with the genre on tunes like “Arrivederci, Roma,” Al Di La,” “Innamorata,” and many others. One of my favorites was his rendition of “For Mama.” Even now, several years after my mother's passing, if want a good emotional breakdown, all I have to do is listen to Jerry's beautiful high tenor voice singing the words to that song.

I first became aware of that voice in the early-to-mid-'60s. Between the two of them, I think my mother and my grandmother owned copies of records by every popular Italian-American singer of the day. The house was always filled with music by Mario Lanza (Alfredo Arnold Cocozza), Perry Como (Pierino Ronald Como), Tony Bennett (Anthony Dominick Benedetto), Dean Martin (Dino Paul Crocetti), Vic Damone (Vito Rocco Farinola), and,of course, Francis Albert “Frank” Sinatra. Even many of the teen idols I was exposed to by my teen sister were Italian; Frankie Avalon (Francis Thomas Avallone), Bobby Darin (Walden Robert Cassotto), Dion (Dion DiMucci), Fabian (Fabian Forte), James Darren (James William Ercolani), Frankie Valli (Francis Steven Casteluccio), and Bobby Rydell (Robert Louis Ridarelli). But, as I said before, I think Jerry Vale was the artist whose records spent the most time on the family turntable. I can still envision my petite grandmother sitting in her favorite rocker and quietly singing along with Jerry on songs from his “The Language of Love” album. “You Belong To My Heart,” “La Vie En Rose,” “Now,” and “Where Is Your Heart (The Song from “Moulin Rouge”) were her very favorites. I heard them over and over for many years. And I still enjoy them, having replaced Grandma's worn LPs with shiny new CDs.

Jerry continued performing on the club circuit up through the 1990s. He even did some “acting” of sorts, playing himself in the movies “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” and on the TV series “The Sopranos.” Poor health forced him to stop working in the early 2000s and he retired with his wife Rita, whom he married in 1959, to their home in Palm Desert, CA. It was there that he died, surrounded by family and friends.

With him goes an era. Most of the Italian-American singers I mentioned earlier, artists who had profound effects on American popular music, are gone now. And there are very few coming along to take their places. Okay, Madonna and Lady Gaga – but somehow it's not the same. The closest we have today is Michael Bublé, the product of Italian grandparents. He wears the crooner mantle well and follows competently in the footsteps of his musical forbears, but he is only one voice in a chorus that was once legion. Tony Bennett is still out there plugging and turning on new audiences to the “old” music. Maybe someday a new generation will rediscover Jerry Vale. He deserves to be remembered.

Arrivederci, Jerry.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

GMO Food Labeling – It's Not About Safety, It's About Our Right to Know

Let's hear it for the rabble rousers in Vermont! They have succeeded in sticking it to Big Food.

Vermont's governor, Peter Shumlin, recently signed legislation making his state the first to require identification of genetically modified organisms – GMO – on food labels. The lackeys at the FDA have bowed and scraped at the feet of Monsanto and other “Big Food” producers, as well as the food industry shills at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and have avoided requiring such labeling at the federal level. So, groups of concerned citizens have been pushing the states to step forward and, although industry pressure has cowed a couple of them – looking at you, California and Washington – the movement is gaining ground. Vermont's neighbors in Maine and Connecticut have passed labeling legislation, but are covering their bets by declaring that the laws won't take effect until other states jump on the bandwagon. I don't know if Vermont's action will motivate them or not. But there are still at least 85 bills pending in 29 states regarding GMO labeling.

Of course, you can expect that Big Food will not take this affront to their sovereignty lightly. As sure as night follows day, there will be challenges and lawsuits that will keep Vermont's lawyers busy for months if not years. But it's a step in the right direction.

What's all the fuss, you might ask? After all, GMO foods have been around for a long time and people have not started dropping like flies as a result. As a matter of fact, most scientific evidence points to the mutations being benign. Other than a few red flag wavers – like the European Union, Japan, Australia, and a host of other countries – many people don't seem to have a problem with GMO from a safety standpoint. The promoters say that such technology is essential to feeding a growing world population. They say that their products will someday be more nutritious and the techniques involved in growing them will be better for the environment. Woo-hoo! I hope they're right. That's not really the issue here. The issue is one of clearly labeling the contents of our food packages.

Why is the food industry so dead set against us knowing what they're doing? If I hear one more food industry flak insult my intelligence by spouting off the company line, “Labels will only mislead and confuse consumers,” I think I'll have a conniption. How stupid do they think we all are? (Don't answer that.)

I have a right to know what I'm putting in my mouth, dammit. Don't tell me I'll be confused or mislead or frightened by seeing “Contains Genetically Modified Ingredients” printed on a label. That's what we have labels for; to tell us what's in the package before we decide to buy it. I'm not terrified by the prospect of mutated corn in my corn oil. But I'd still like to know it's in there. Why is that “confusing,” “misleading,” or “frightening?” I know of another word that could solve all the issues: “education.” If the food industry is so all-fired certain that we're nothing but a bunch of ignorant dolts, then I call upon them to educate us rather than to attempt to protect us from ourselves. When it comes to what we're putting in our bodies, ignorance is not bliss. Even if the substance in question is holy water, I want to know it's in there. I have a right to know it's in there. Why shouldn't I know it's in there? Unless there really is something to hide. Is the food industry really concerned that we poor fools will be confused, or do they have a darker agenda they're trying to hide? (Bwah-ha-ha! I love a good conspiracy theory!)

Seriously, c'mon, FDA, Monsanto, Grocery Manufacturers Association, and cowardly and/or corrupt politicians everywhere. Knowing what's in our food supply may not be one of the inalienable rights We the People are guaranteed by the Constitution, but maybe it should be. I'm sure James Madison and his cronies weren't up on genetic engineering, but they were pretty much on the side of an informed populace. And that's all we're asking; to be informed. To be able to make informed decisions. If GMO are safe, then the manufacturers and promoters of the stuff have nothing to hide and nothing to lose by telling us about it. If they're not safe and future generations start sprouting extra fingers and toes, well, at least we were informed and given the option to buy or not to buy.

The labeling issue is in our hands. We're the ones with the need to know and we're the only ones who can demand that we do know. The sight of FDA officials doing cartwheels and handstands at the bidding of their industry handlers is pathetic. They're like monkeys performing for peanuts. Probably genetically modified ones. Big Food has them firmly under control and the only way we'll get anything done that benefits us rather than “the industry” is if we all do what a bunch of rabble rousers in Vermont did. Don't just speak up, shout out! Make your state legislators hear your voice. Let them know that you want to be informed about what you're eating. It's that simple. It's not about safety or science, although that may be part of the bigger picture. And it's not about fear or confusion. With all the additives and preservatives the food industry shovels into our grocery carts, there's already enough questionable crap in there as it is. We just demand the right to know exactly what that questionable crap is and whether or not we really want to buy it.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Why Mario Batali Walked His Orange Crocs Out of Food Network

Food Network? Why Not Call It “Food and Entertainment Network?”

There's all kinds of Internet buzz being generated lately by the “news” behind Mario Batali's departure from Food Network. It's not really news. Mario has been telling people why he left for years, but for some reason when he sat down with “The Atlantic” recently and repeated his oft-told tale, it suddenly became “news.”

So why did Mario tell Food Network where to go? First of all, they gave him the Emeril LaGasse treatment. Like Emeril, Mario was a major stud in the network's stable back when they still pretended to care about food. “Molto Mario” was a programming staple, as was “Emeril Live.” Then the network did a 180 and decided they wanted to be an entertainment/reality medium rather than a food medium and they gave most of their food stars the old heave ho, replacing them with hours and hours of mindless, brainless, talentless competition shows and worse.

Mario hung around for awhile after they axed “Molto Mario” because he was still a major player on the one competition show Food Network had that was worth watching, “Iron Chef America.” But it didn't take long for the idiots on the upper floors to screw that pooch, too.

It's a basic tenet of jurisprudence that one is entitled to be judged by a jury of one's peers. Taken to the food competition show level, that would mean that contestants should be judged by their equals; people qualified to evaluate them based on their own experience within the food industry. Makes sense. And that's probably why the powers-that-be stopped doing it. I mean, we're talking Wolfgang Puck here. Bobby Flay. Masaharu Morimoto. And, of course, Mario Batali. And some of the competitors they faced included names like Jamie Oliver, Tim Love, Chris Cosentino, Anita Lo, Ming Tsai, Rick Bayless, Todd English, Wylie Dufresne, David Burke, John Besh, Susur Lee, Richard Blais, and Jose Andres, just to name a few. These high caliber, heavy hitting chefs have a galaxy of stars among them. And in the beginning, they were being judged by people who knew food. Fellow chefs, food writers, restaurant critics. But I guess the network execs figured that folks like Dana Cowin, Jeffrey Steingarten, and Ed Levine weren't glamorous or attractive or entertaining enough to fit their new entertainment module, so they started trotting out actors and comedians and sports figures. Now Boomer Esiason might be a great panelist on Monday Night Football, but what the hell does he know about food and cooking? Other than the fact that he likes to eat. So Mario got pissed about the whole dog and pony show and hit the road. And rightly so. First, they unceremoniously kick his well-received cooking show to the curb then they add insult to injury by letting “skinny little actresses” (his words) judge his offerings as a chef.

I'm a cook, okay? I'm not a chef, but I am a knowledgeable cook. And I write a bit about food. But I would never in my wildest dreams consider myself qualified to sit at a table with one or two equally unqualified individuals and tell any one of the aforementioned culinary superstars that their dishes needed salt. Can you imagine a Little League coach telling Derek Jeter or Miguel Cabrera or Ryan Braun that their swing is a little off? “Yo, Peyton Manning. I don't actually play football, but I watch it on TV and I don't think you're holding the ball quite right.” Or, “Gee, Mr.Pacino. I really like your movies, but I don't think you really got a handle on that last character you played.” Okay, so everybody's entitled to an opinion, but when you're in a position to judge something, shouldn't it at least be an informed or educated opinion?

A lot of people don't like Mario, and that's fine. I like him. We're not best buds or anything, but I've seen him in person and I respect his talent and his ability. The whole shorts, vest, and orange crocs thing and the rockstar wannabe attitude aside, he knows his food. And that's more than can be said about the people judging “Iron Chef America” these days. I agree with him on that point. Many is the time I've sat there in my living room and said, “Who the f**k are you (Mario's words again) to be talking about (fill in the blank)'s food?” Come on, Food Network! Just because a person has openings on both ends with which to process food does not make them qualified to pass judgment on professionals with decades of experience in the kitchen, no matter how many entertainment awards they've been nominated for or what their Nielsen ratings are.

But sadly, as I said, Food Network has long since abandoned any semblance of a commitment to food or food education in favor of the latest glitz and glam of so-called “reality” TV. They might as well call themselves the “Food and Entertainment Network.” Or maybe, to get the priorities straight, the “Entertainment and Food Network.” Does anybody remember a fortunately short-lived FN farce called “Bama Glama?” If not, look it up. Whoever green-lighted that disaster should be tarred, feathered, and ridden out of Chelsea Market on a rail. And the process should be filmed and aired. After all, feathers come from birds and birds are food, so by Food Network's logic, such a spectacle could be considered food programming.

When speaking of his erstwhile employer, former Food Networker Anthony Bourdain once said, “Aspiring to mediocrity is not a good thing.” Tony's gone. Mario's gone. Emeril's gone. Wolfgang is “retired.” Kitchen savvy Ted Allen and Alton Brown are reduced to being game show hosts. Nigella Lawson, Michael Chiarello, Jamie Oliver, Sara Moulton.......all serious food people and all gone. I'm a serious food person, too, and although I'm not quite gone yet, I'm going.

People always say, “Remember when MTV used to play music videos?” How about this; “Remember when Food Network used to be about food?”

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Reading and Understanding Food Labels

Advertising Agencies Are Not Your Friends

You've probably heard by now that food labels are getting a makeover, the first such overhaul in more than twenty years. The biggest change will be to serving sizes. For years now, a 20-ounce bottle of soda has contained 2.5 servings. Right. Like that's realistic. Everybody stops drinking when they hit the 8-ounce mark, don't they? That way they only consume 130 calories and 32 grams of sugar, like it says on the label. Under the new guidelines, one bottle will equal one serving. And you won't have to squint anymore to find the calorie count; it'll jump right out at you in bigger print – all 325 calories plus 80 grams of sugar. The change that has the processed food pushers squirming the most is the one that will require the label to clearly list how much added sugar the product contains. No more guesswork about what is a naturally occurring sugar and what the manufacturer has added.

If you've read much of my writing, you'll know that I'm really big on reading labels. If the ingredient list reads like the answer sheet to a graduate level chemistry exam, avoid the product. But there are some less obvious things to watch for on food product labels. Beyond just reading, you have to understand and recognize things that manufacturers try to slip by you in the hope you won't notice you're being bamboozled.

Perhaps the biggest bamboozle is the word “natural.” Here's the lowdown straight from the FDA: “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

You get that? Amidst the gobbledygook is the fact that the government agency that allegedly regulates our food supply has its lips so firmly attached to the nether regions of processed food producers that it really doesn't have a codified definition of the word “natural.” According to them, they don't “object” to a product being labeled “natural” as long as it doesn't contain anything blatantly unnatural.

For example, high fructose corn syrup is a “natural” product. Just ask the Corn Refiners Association that promotes the stuff. I'm sorry, but chemically engineered cornstarch does not fit my definition of a natural ingredient. And yet, the FDA allows it in almost everything you put in your mouth these days. They afford it GRAS status. That means “Generally Recognized As Safe.” Here's how the FDA describes HFCS in Title 21, Vol. 3, Part 184, Subpart B, Sec. 184.1866:

High fructose corn syrup, a sweet, nutritive saccharide mixture containing either approximately 42 or 55 percent fructose, is prepared as a clear aqueous solution from high dextrose-equivalent corn starch hydrolysate by partial enzymatic conversion of glucose (dextrose) to fructose using an insoluble glucose isomerase enzyme preparation described in 184.1372. The product containing more than 50 percent fructose (dry weight) is prepared through concentration of the fructose portion of the mixture containing less than 50 percent fructose.

My, doesn't that sound natural? And yet, when the FDA tried to grow a pair back in '08 and say that calling HFCS “natural” was “deceptive and misleading,” their overlords at the Corn Refiners Association slapped them back into submission and they reversed their decision.

How about “caramel coloring?” That's natural, right? Once upon a time, yes. Back when they made it by simply heating sugar until it turned brown. But not when they mix the sugar with ammonium compounds that produce a potentially toxic byproduct called 4-Methylimidazole or 4-MEI, a byproduct associated with other “natural” words like “carcinogenic” and “convulsant.” Industry pooh-poohers say, “Oh, but you'd have to drink massive amounts of caramel colored soft drinks to suffer any ill effects.” Guess that's why they've been quietly reducing the amount of the stuff they slip in your soda since the word about 4-MEI got out.

Have you ever seen “carrageenan” on a food label? Yeah, I didn't know what it was either. But the FDA says it's “GRAS,” so it must be alright, right? It's a seaweed derivative, specifically red algae, mostly found in dairy products and it's used to keep ingredients from separating. By the way, carrageenan is also found in “personal lubricants.” Think about that one next time you eat some ice cream containing this “natural” ingredient. Anyway, the battling “experts” are currently trying to determine whether or not carrageenan contributes to inflammation, profound glucose intolerance, impaired insulin action, and a number of other nasty things. At this point, the smart money seems to be on avoiding the stuff. Even the ever-courageous FDA has this to say in it's final paragraph on the substance: “The Select Committee has weighed the foregoing and concludes that: While no evidence in the available information on undegraded carrageenan demonstrates a hazard to the public when it is used at levels that are now current and in the manner now practiced, uncertainties exist requiring that additional studies should be conducted.”

In other words, go with the smart money. Avoid the stuff.

Look for “palm oil” in a lot of your snack food items. Manufacturers started putting it in there when the hammer came down on trans-fats and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. All they did was substitute one potentially harmful substance for another, but the substituted substance at least sounds natural. Palm oil kind of makes you think of palm trees swaying in the tropical breeze. And it's actually made from a variety of palm tree, the oil palm. But it's not health food. True, it is slightly less saturated than butter and contains no trans-fats, but it's still a form of saturated fat, capable of jacking up your LDL if you eat enough of it. And you're eating enough of it. The United States imported about 2.7 billion pounds of the stuff in 2013. Which leads to another issue; an environmental one. Increased demand for palm oil has resulted in massive destruction of tropical forests in places like Indonesia, where the clear-cutting has reached 18 million acres, up from just over a half-million acres in the 1980's. So is palm oil a natural product? Yes. But it's not a particularly healthy one, especially not for Mother Nature. You really need to stick with liquid fats like canola and vegetable oils.

You know, the Corn Refiners Association tried to do a nifty end run around the term “high fructose corn syrup” when that term came under increased public scrutiny. They wanted the FDA to let them call their product “corn sugar” instead. Somehow, the agency found a couple of vertebrae and said, “No.” But that doesn't seem to be the case with “evaporated cane juice.” You know what “evaporated cane juice” really is? Sugar. Plain old processed, refined, white sugar with an uptown moniker. After raw cane sugar has been boiled down, the leftover crystals are scraped up and processed just a little more, taking out whatever nutritive value they might still possess. The resultant “evaporated” product is then added to things that call themselves “100% natural” or “100% juice.” Yeah, the FDA has sent out a few warning letters, but the manufacturers are still tap dancing. If you don't like the tune, don't buy the product.

Made with.....”. That's a good one. You see a package that says, “Made With Healthy Stuff!” And then you read the label; the “healthy stuff” for which you bought the product turns out to be the eleventh ingredient in a twelve ingredient list. But it's in there! So the manufacturer can legally say, “made with.”

You're watching your sugar intake, okay? And you spot a product that says “Lightly Sweetened” on the front of the package. That's got to mean less sugar, right? Wrong. The FDA actually regulates the use of “sugar free” and “no added sugars,” but it has nothing whatsoever to say about “low sugar” or “lightly sweetened.” So if a processed food manufacturer's advertising department wants to stick a big “Lightly Sweetened” banner across the face of a product to which ten pounds of sugar or ten pounds of artificial sweeteners has been added, the FDA has to let them do it. But if you read the label, you don't have to buy it.

Face it, folks, ad people are not employed to monitor or improve your health. They are hired to sell products. To that end, they will use any and all tricks of the trade with which they can legally get by. And even then, they often push the limits. They don't care whether or not a product is really “heart-healthy.” As long as nobody calls them on it, they'll say it because they correctly believe you'll buy it. And they'll throw every buzzword in the books at you. “Antioxidants.” “Fiber.” “Polyphenols.” “Whole Grains.” “Doctor Approved.” “Strengthens Your Immune System.” “Light.” “Reduced.” “Free.” I especially like “Gluten Free.” Because a bunch of misinformed celebrities and celebrity-wannabes got the idea that avoiding gluten was a good way to lose weight, they started a fad. And there's nothing marketers like more than a good fad. So they began plastering every blessed thing in the grocery store with “Gluten Free!” labels, even things that couldn't possibly contain gluten in the first place. But if you're a non-Celiac sufferer who thinks that by avoiding gluten you'll be healthier, happier, sexier, thinner, and just a better all-around person because Oprah said so, you'll buy anything that says “Gluten Free.”

I went to nursing school many years ago and among the required courses in the curriculum was a unit on nutrition. I think comprehensive nutrition classes ought to be mandatory at the high school level. Agriculture students are taught to recognize bovine excrement and how to avoid stepping in it. It's a skill I think everybody should learn. It's not enough to just read the label on a food product; you have to understand what you're reading. For instance, anything that ends in “ose” is a sugar. If you are an educated consumer and you see “low sugar” advertised on a package and then find the ingredient label of said “low sugar” product to be full of maltose, sucrose, dextrose, glucose, etc., you'll recognize bovine excrement and avoid stepping in it.

Here's the takeaway in three simple statements: Read the label, understand what you're reading, and remember, manufacturers of processed foods, their advertising agencies, and their paid politicians are not your friends.