It all started with a tweet! One of my Twitter followers showed me a product in which sugar was added to sugarcane juice and expressed their frustration about it.
Following which we had a flurry of discussions about – freshly squeezed juices, packaged juice, 100% juices, etc., when I noticed this comment by an individual in the replies.
I wanted to reply, but I had way too many thoughts about this topic and decided to write a blog post instead. I notice this “chemically, it is all the same” question repeatedly comes up in various forms:
“Brown rice has almost the same carbs as white rice, you are not doing yourself any favors switching.”
“Rock salt has pretty much the same sodium levels as refined salt, the mineral levels are small and insignificant”
“You are wasting money buying cold pressed oils, when all the fat is pretty much there in refined oils at a less cost”
“Jaggery has the same calories as white sugar, it is hogwash to think it is superior”
and so on…
Here’s why I think these kinds of arguments is just 1-dimensional thinking. There are no nuances in these arguments. They basically boil the world down to mainly the macronutrients – carb, protein, fats and chemical duplication and nothing else. That’s it! Nothing else matters! Not even a discussion of micronutrients, volatile compounds, overall nutrition, taste, preserving culture, nothing.
History, Present and Future
There was once a world when everything was whole grain, unrefined oils, fresh flavor and taste. This is pre-industrialization era. Was that world perfect? Heck no! There was scarcity and hunger and starvation. Do we want to go back to that world? Of course not.
Let’s swing to the present and possible future. You take every food and break it into its components. And then, like lego pieces, you put everything back in the form you want. Yes, there is government regulated fortification which reduces the amount of people suffering from nutritional deficiencies – and that’s of course great news.
But, levels of obesity are unlike ever before in history. And nutrition dense foods is fast becoming a privilege of the rich. Can this world be made better? Heck, yeah! So then let’s talk about it. Let’s put our expectations out there, so that scientists, food companies and governments can start working on solutions. I want cold pressed oils, but you say cold pressed oils cannot have a shelf life of 2 years, then let’s fix that problem. I want jaggery for its complex taste, but you say jaggery clumps together, and also has unclean manufacturing practices, then let’s fix that issue.
If you think, food companies are going to “do the right thing” without any push from people, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. Also, read the book “Citizen Coke” by Bartow J Elmore to see the kinds of shenanigans Coca Cola did to retain their market supremacy in the past century. When Indra Nooyi, ex-CEO of Pepsi wanted the company to barely look in the direction of healthy foods, activist shareholders pretty much declared war on her.
But, people can and should expect more. Technology can deliver. When Michael Pollan wrote his book, “In Defense of Food” without probably realizing the earth-shattering impact it had on people (he probably was like, what have I done! :)); it finally decelerated the era of adding 20+ additives to fix manufacturing problems. For eg, instead of using dough conditioners, emulsifiers, flour strengtheners, preservatives, etc. some bread manufacturers used newer ways to deliver results without chemical bandages.
Here’s an example on FAQ from Dave’s killer bread‘s website, whose product is sold in the supermarket, yet uses no preservatives.
So, technology can deliver. But, let’s go back to the original question – why bother trying to get food in its original form? And I think we should be bothered for 4 main reasons:
Let’s take the case of white rice vs brown rice for example. The brown rice has 8% extra bran and 2% extra germ. And the majority left – 90% is exactly the same – endosperm/ starch. In fact, the carb levels in 1 cup of cooked brown rice (52 g) is almost the same as carbs in 1 cup of cooked white rice (53g). So why bother?
Nutrition extends beyond counting macros. The presence of bran and germ play an important role as guard rails in food.
- It lowers the risk of diabetes as cited in this paper:
We estimated that replacing 50 g/d (uncooked, equivalent to one-third serving per day) intake of white rice with the same amount of brown rice was associated with a 16% (95% CI, 9%-21%) lower risk of type 2 diabetes, whereas the same replacement with whole grains as a group was associated with a 36% (30%-42%) lower diabetes risk.
2. You cannot overdo yumminess when bran and germ are present
Darn it! The presence of that pesky outer layer makes it difficult for manufacturers to shape it into addictive forms :)! Go take a look at your favorite chip or cereal that is crispy and molded into geometrical shapes – like rice chex, square puffs, etc. they will all have refined flour shaping them. Removing the bran and germ, allows corn and rice to be extruded and puffed into many shapes. These puffed cereals are extremely high in the Glycemic Index. Cereals with more bran in them are less likely to have those delightful, addictive shapes – it is a self limiting factor.
There is so much complex aromas and tastes that nature has to offer, that our current science is barely scratching the surface in understanding it. Harold McGee recently wrote the book Nosedive (Side note – That man is always so ahead of his time, just like “On food and cooking“, it will take time for folks to get this genius). He talks about the chemical aromas present in mosses, trees, grasses, weeds, herbs etc. Nature has hundreds of thousands of compounds in tiny amounts spread throughout. On the synthetic side, we have around 3000 flavors approved by the FDA to be added into foods to imitate the real thing.
Let’s take chocolate as an example. The whole process of fermenting, roasting and conching all end up with close to 600 flavor molecules that give its complex richness and taste. Now, try artificial chocolate to see how 1-dimensional it can be. Now, maybe they can add 20 or 30 chemicals before getting 80-90% of the flavor that real chocolate can offer. But do I really want to expose my body to synthetically made molecules 20-30 varieties of them, when I can get something nature has done much better? My answer is No!
Going with the same chocolate example as before, a lot of people are rightfully upset about lack of fair wages to cocoa workers in Africa. You can raise similar analogies of tea plantation in Assam, coffee workers in Ghana, etc. What are possible solutions?
One way to go forward is to raise VC funds and get a bunch of biochemists to develop flavors from other materials to make it feel like you are drinking coffee or eating chocolate similar to Compound Foods who are making beanless coffee.
Alternatively, you could actually make a successful business out of fair trade products and pay laborers a living wage like Tony’s Chocolooney (whose mission is to make chocolate 100% slave free for not just their company, but worldwide). This way, you know – you keep their jobs and pay them well!!
Europe takes great pride in their foods and culture. For example, the cheese Parmigiano-Reggiano can only come from the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna & Mantua of Italy. Why? They follow a strict set of rules to making that cheese including aging it a minimum of 12 months. If you take an American processed cheese, the protein content may be quite similar. May even be more! Plus it can be made and packaged within the same day. So, the quicker, the better – yes?
But, it is not only about quick manufacturing or the protein content! We know, just in the last decade or so – how important the gut microbiome is and how important fermented foods are. And more importantly, we have always known – how great they taste!
Look, I am not saying everyone should only use brown rice, jaggery, fermented cheese, etc. But the future of relying solely on ultra-processed foods is not a path to victory, at least we are no where close to it yet.
So, no, it is not just about carbs, proteins and fats and chemically identical substances which accounts for fraction of the taste. It is more complex than that. It is about overall health, taste, fair wages, appreciating foods that take time and effort, etc.
The food companies will do their thing and sell us food. That’s their job. It doesn’t mean, we just willfully go along for the ride all the time.