For all the fuss these days about food — where it comes from, what it does to your body and the planet — shopping at an average well-stocked grocery store remains a straightforward task. It sounds reductive, but as long as you know your budget and which ingredients to look out for, shopping responsibly is just a process of elimination. This means inspecting lots of labels before throwing the best possible item into the cart. Generally, I trust food labels to tell me whether I’m buying something with too many processed ingredients, preservatives, or sugars, whether the item comes from near or far, and if it is organic, fair trade, or whatnot. But recent news about a pair of important foodstuffs casts doubt over this approach.
In the last few weeks, the Corn Refiners Association began a campaign to rebrand high fructose corn syrup — a target of much criticism — as “corn sugar.” In an act of disguising industry lobbying as consumer protection, the name change is framed as an “effort to help clarify the labeling of food products for consumers” so that they do not “make misinformed decisions about sugars in their diets.” But since the presence of HFCS generally indicates a highly processed food item, the name change would obstruct attempts to steer clear of unhealthy foods. On the other end of the spectrum is extra-virgin olive oil, which has a reputation so sterling that inferior blends have long flown under the radar by invoking the EVOO name.
Both are cases of dishonesty or sleight of hand: the quality of the ingredient is different than what it is purported to be. For corn syrup, the issue isn’t complicated. Nobody, not even the corn syrup lobby, denies that corn syrup is bad for you, so the re-branding is really just a transparent attempt to hoodwink the consumer. But for olive oil, quality is an important determinant of flavor — and price — which means there are incentives for producers to mislabel lower-quality oils as extra virgin. So enters the issue of trust.
Since regulations and standards enforcing the purity of olive oil are either voluntary or nonexistent, shoppers surrender their trust to the market or food company every time they buy a bottle. We also expect companies to act on good faith when producing and labeling things like ostensibly nitrite-free meat, substitute meat products (many of which are highly processed), and even organic food in general. In a few years, the salmon we buy might be genetically altered and not even say so on the label. Sometimes the food industry is being dishonest, and sometimes it is not, so what can we do to ensure our food is trustworthy?
Seeking greater confidence in the quality of my food, I planned a couple of meals where my trust would not be in jeopardy. I bought completely organic ingredients when possible. I did all my shopping at grocery stores to see if quality could be achieved without the reassuring aura of the farmer’s market. I made key ingredients from scratch so that preservatives, chemicals, and hidden fat, sodium, or sugar weren’t an issue. The big question in mind was: is constructing almost every component of a meal a realistic approach to making it “trustworthy”? Or, to put it more simply: how good is good enough?
For the first meal, I made fish curry. I took control of the recipe by making my own coconut milk at home, and by buying fish that was as local and sustainable as possible. At the Whole Foods seafood counter, a sticker welcomed me to ask about their “seafood sustainability rating system,” which I figured would reflect the conditions of local fisheries. The employee at the counter was surprisingly candid, telling me that the rating system was ineffective, because it understated the severity of overfishing certain species by implying that a decades-long trend could be mitigated by a rating system. His words echoed a quote in an interview with journalist Paul Greenberg:
People [buy fish based on a rating system] and say, “Check, chose the right fish, did my job for the ocean.” But they didn’t. That one person didn’t eat a fish that someone else, somewhere else, with less ethics, is going to eat. In addition to choosing the right fish, people need to communicate with retailers directly. It’s the large aggregate that needs to change.
I did the best I could and took the fish seller’s personal advice, which was to buy black rockfish, since it has a stable population and is fished locally with fairly non-invasive methods. I felt good: I was buying a high-quality product based on an expert’s first-hand advice.
Back at home, making the coconut milk ended up being extremely labor-intensive, and I don’t think I would do it again — it took over an hour to make something that could be opened from a can in just a few seconds. It was the first time I ever prepped part of a meal in the garage — it turns out a hammer is the best tool for getting inside – and twice I stabbed myself in the hand trying to scoop out the fruit’s flesh. It was interesting to learn how coconut milk is made — you shred the flesh, soak it in warm water and then squeeze the fatty, oily milk out of it — but now that I know, I’ll let a machine do the work and focus more on the rest of the recipe. Because I was using only my hands, I didn’t get much richness out of the shreds, and the coconut milk was fairly light and watery. This ended up being an asset, as it allowed the flavor of the fish to shine through. I had stumbled into one of my favorite tricks of cooking — using simple, homemade ingredients to compliment a high-quality store-bought ingredient. Like simmering fresh tomatoes and herbs to go with imported Italian pasta, or crafting a careful marinade for a steak from the farmer’s market, the pairing of light homemade coconut milk and black rockfish elevated both the store-bought ingredient and the one made at home.
Nevertheless, I had mixed feelings on what it took to make this meal “trustworthy.” Even though I appreciate what the lightness of the homemade coconut milk did for the curry, I think diluting the canned version with water would have been just as good, far more convenient, and worth the remote risk of consuming some preservatives. The Trader Joe’s brand claims to have no preservatives anyway. And it’s possible the total carbon cost of growing and shipping fresh coconuts from Mexico to California was greater than that of one mass-produced can. Buying the fish was a good learning experience and it tasted great, but it was also quite expensive — like most animal proteins, if you want to eat the guilt-free version, you’ll have to pay a large premium. Altogether the meal was both trustworthy and high-quality, but not realistic for anything but a special occasion.
Taking the experiment further, I decided to make another meal with even more parts that were homemade. The goal was to prepare zucchini pancakes (with homemade parsley pesto in the batter), topped with a fresh salsa of corn, peppers, and tomatoes, as well as homemade sriracha (inspired by this recent recipe), with a side of sliced melon (sprinkled with a homemade chili powder). In retrospect, I would have done well to live by the axiom: instead of trying to do many things pretty well, focus on doing just a few things very well.
I think I fell off track when I was harried and running behind schedule but still took 15 minutes to make pesto even though I knew its taste would end up going unnoticed in the zucchini batter. In the rush to get everything else done I did not extract enough liquid from the batter, and when it came time to fry the pancakes they would not take form. I ended up having to turn it into a moist, undercooked scramble that my family jokingly called “zucchini surprise.” The salsa wasn’t great on its own, but at least it added texture and flavor to the green mush. The best part of the meal ended up being the fresh, ripe melon rubbed with homemade chili powder. Like the fish curry, it paired a simple, elegant ingredient with something homemade that brought both elements to a new place.
In my enthusiasm to make almost every crucial part of the meal from scratch, I lost sight of the bigger picture — how would the meal taste as a whole, could I finish cooking it all in time, what was I sacrificing by obsessing over ingredients? By these measures, the meal was not a success. I maintained a high level of trust in my food as I purchased and prepared it, but I approached the latter with a righteous zeal that would be hard to replicate night after night. The financial and physical drain of my approach could turn an inexperienced person off to the idea of cooking from scratch, which was not the lesson I hoped to take away.
Yet there is a silver lining. I discovered that the finest things I prepared were also the simplest — pairings of a single high-quality item with just one judiciously chosen homemade ingredient. Whittling down a meal to just a few ingredients that you can really trust may lead to healthier eating, by fixing less food per meal, and focusing on savoring whatever is special about the dish in front of you. I would also hope this approach would make trustworthy food more accessible — if one can afford to buy just a few really solid ingredients, and learn how to use them well, then the pressure to convert to a completely organic, sustainable, local diet becomes less pressing. I found a similar sentiment in an article titled “Carrots Are the New Caviar”:
Revaluing ingredients — starting with the assumption that a potato or a carrot can taste as exciting as foie gras… can lead not only to better food, but, equally important in these difficult economic times, to a less costly way of eating… knowing how to cook means it is possible to eat both well and inexpensively.
It is unrealistic to expect that we will ever have complete trust in the food we consume — food industry lobbies, ever-changing perceptions of nutrition and dieting, and opportunistic obfuscation of food labels will see to that. Doing justice to food both as consumer and cook is the closest we can come to getting it right.