I should preface this post with the glaringly obvious statement that 'I am not a nutritionist'. I don't know what the recommended daily intake of calcium, iron, or sodium is. I would be hard-pressed to tell you what foods will counteract certain ailments (though I'm almost positive that local, un- pasteurized honey is the answer to most problems). What I do know is this: real food is the answer. Always. To almost any question.
Strangely, two completely unrelated people pop into my head whenever I think of real food. The first is my grandma. My grandma loves butter. And cream. And Irish whiskey. The consummate lady, she is elegant, poised, and only sometimes lets slip that she is well-versed in the vernacular of a trucker. She also happens to be a spry, thin 88 year old. Think about that one for a second...
The second is Jennifer McLagan. She showed up in my life for an instant and then was gone, but in the way that few people do, she made a jarring impression. Jennifer is the author of Bones: Recipes, History and Lore,Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredientand Odd Bits : How to Cook the Rest of the Animal - all excellent reads which I highly recommend. She is also a charming and eloquent speaker who was kind enough to visit The University of Gastronomic Sciences when I was doing my masters degree there. Jennifer's all about real food; it fills you up faster, keeps you full longer, and tastes a whole lot better than anything manufactured in a lab.
It was under Jennifer's guidance and due to her visit that a group of us undertook cooking a dinner around odd bits. Odd bits of animals (brain, tail, skin, liver, tongue, trotter, blood, fat, and ears) and vegetables (stalks, stems and leaves that would usually be thrown away). I will be the first to admit that I was intimidated by both the prospect of cooking with these foreign ingredients and then eating them for dinner. My vegetarian flatmate was unimpressed that I stored a bucket of blood in our fridge while experimenting with chocolate-blood pudding recipes. But we all got past that and moved on; and in those weeks of planning, testing, and putting on a dinner for forty I finally understood the whole problem behind real food. People are scared.
I grew up in a kitchen making cookies and hulling strawberries for jam. My family ate dinner around the dining room table six nights out of seven; and while it was usually at a later hour than we would have liked as kids, we ate fresh food made from scratch. So I'm pretty darn comfortable cooking and experimenting, but obviously even I have my 'don't go there' limits. So how can someone who didn't have that luxury be expected to go forth and cook something new that tastes good and is good for them? Especially when the alternative is grabbing the ready-to-eat alternative from a restaurant or seemingly-healthier fridge section at the grocery store.
The answer is: they can't. No matter how much we drive home reading labels and choosing whole grains, if it comes in a package it probably isn't the best decision. While using the yogurt example may be akin to kicking a dead horse, it still needs to be said. Low fat yogurt is full of sugar; low fat things don't taste good, so sugar (which, admittedly, does taste good) is pumped in to compensate. So you're thinking 'six of one, half a dozen of the other'. Yes, but also very much no. Sugar doesn't fill you up in the same way that fat does, so rather than having a couple of bites, you're more inclined to scarf down a giant bowl; all of a sudden that scale isn't so balanced.
Ok, so let's teach people not to eat sugar. But we already told them not to eat fat because fat makes you fat, right? So what's left? Sugar substitutes that are low in calories and high in sketchiness?
Even for the most well-informed, the nutritional values in food will never be a practical way to judge which cereal is healthier than the others. And as far as I'm concerned, obsessing over labels isn't a very fun way to live life. So I propose Vancouver takes a different approach: real food. Let's stop teaching people how to read labels and count calories. Instead, let's learn what to do with the cheap cuts of meat, or bumper crop of tomatoes, or even the living sourdough starter that can magically turn itself into the best bread you've ever had. If it doesn't have a label it's going to be better for you. Period.
Let's stop being afraid of food by focusing our education on having fun and experimenting. Really, what's the worst that could happen? Let's eat more real food.