You can’t make good food out of bad ingredients. Conversely (or is it obversely?), you need good ingredients to make good food. (Perhaps it’s contrapositively? And to think I used to be a logic tutor.)
So much for good ingredients. Suffice it to say that they make everything taste better. Now, about nutrition. You can’t get good nutrition from bad food, and you can’t make good food from bad ingredients. Therefore, you need good ingredients to achieve good nutrition. And health relies on nourishment. So, it comes to this: good ingredients are the foundation of good health. After all, what else do our cells have to work with?
Next comes the question of what is meant by good ingredients. Not everyone has the same thing in mind, and certainly mainstream thinking differs from my own point of view.
When I talk about good ingredients, I mean real food — whole food. Generally speaking, that means food that you could grow yourself, or theoretically make in a home kitchen, somewhere on earth, without Industrial Age technology.
That means, for instance, miso and tamari (traditionally fermented soy sauce), yes; hydrolyzed soy protein, no. Tofu, yes; Tofutti, no. Ice cream, yes; Rice Dream, no. Lard and butter, yes; vegetable shortening and margarine, no. Kombu, yes; Accent MSG in a shaker can, no. Artificial flavors and colors, no. “Natural flavor” — also no. There is little that’s natural about the complex chemical cocktails legally allowed to be classified as “natural flavor.”
In the same vein, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), no. Agave syrup, no. (It’s not a natural, ancient food; it’s high-tech, super-high-fructose industrial swill made from the garbage left over after making tequila.) Olive oil, yes. Corn oil, soybean oil, grape seed oil and canola oil, no. Whole milk, cream, and products made from the natural separation of these two, yes. Low-fat and nonfat dairy products: no, no, no.
Generally speaking, I say again. Baking powder was an Industrial Age innovation. Today it seems like an old-fashioned ingredient, but it’s really newfangled, in the scheme of things. I do use baking powder, but I use it in things that I make and eat rarely, like birthday cakes. It doesn’t apply to 99% of what I cook, eat and serve my family.
What matters more is choosing — and growing — ingredients that come from healthy soil, healthy workplaces and animals that have the opportunity to live a life of integrity. For instance, eggs from free-ranging hens — ideally, straight from the farmer. Or better still, a friend with chickens. (Someday, I would love to have my own chickens!) Butter, milk and cheese from cows that graze on organic pastures, rather than being fed unnatural silage. Organic fruits and vegetables from family gardens or farms. Meat from grass-fed cattle. Herbs from my own backyard.
If you’re not in the habit already, please start reading labels. Do you know what everything is that’s listed? Do you know, or can you imagine what it takes to make the food look and taste the way it does?
For instance, how would you start with a handful of corn kernels, a stalk of sugar cane and a few peanuts and wind up with a puff of Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch? I don’t know exactly — in fact, the many processes involve a bunch of patents and trade secrets, so I can’t know — but it has something to do with extrusion and soaking and spraying, massive steel tanks and superhot temperatures. You can’t make it in your kitchen. It takes a lot of stuff to make it into a totally new, previously unknown substance.
And, I would argue, your body can’t quite figure out what to do with it, what with those starches and proteins and fats being broken and put together in new and unfamiliar ways. I don’t think that one puff of breakfast cereal or rice cake will kill you singlepuffedly, but I am inclined to think that, with a steady diet of them — in combination with the other crazy modern foodlike substances we put in over the course of years or decades — your body eventually might become so confused that it eventually runs out of ideas what to do with the weird stuff you’re putting into it.
And there’s my not-so-scientific, perhaps, philosophy on what makes for good ingredients. Real, recognizable plants and animals that were in turn fed real, recognizable stuff. Stuff that’s like what we — and the plants and animals — evolved eating. Stuff that doesn’t make anyone confused. Stuff that makes sense.