In The Woodstock Independent, 2013
As the only vegetarian cafe in the area, I have many health-conscious customers. Increasingly they ask for gluten-free products. Most of my food is, in fact, gluten-free naturally. For those who want some kind of bread with their meal, though, I stock gluten-free crackers.
Last week we ran out of our regular product, and I had to run to a local store to pick up a substitute: $7.00 for a small box of rice crackers with just enough in it to provide a few small crackers to four customers. $7.00 for a product that has little nutrition, no fiber and is high on the glycemic index. This same $7.00 would buy me seven bags of whole wheat pita, each with 10 “loaves” of six inch pitas, from a small bakery in Chicago that makes the bread fresh on their premises. Enough for 70 customers. Wheat with protein, vitamins B1, B2, B3, E, folic acid, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, iron, and good fiber content. Why does it cost so much more to get so much less? This question aggravated me all week.
I understand some of us need gluten-free products — yet I cannot help but feel we are being duped by a food industry that creates a health problem and then offers “solutions” from which it profits enormously. Gluten-free sales reached more than $2.6 billion by the end of 2010 and are now expected to exceed more than $5 billion by 2015. (Source: Packaged Facts, 2011). On the other hand, I wonder if many of us go gluten-free thinking it’s healthier but choose “substitutes” that are not only more expensive but nutritionally inferior.
Two years ago I first heard the term “value added product.” I wasn’t familiar with this term so did a little research. “Value added” refers to any step in the production process that improves the product for the customer and results in a higher net worth. I suspect the operative words are “production process,” which in my experience results not in added value for the customer, where value should be defined as enhancing health, but for the food industry, where value is defined as profit.
Those rice crackers I bought might be considered “value added”. They are simple grains of rice subjected to a series of steps involving water, heat, expensive machinery and sprayed on seasoning. Chicken McNuggets would also be an example of a “value added product.” A few weeks ago, a report revealed the real content of a Chicken McNugget, renaming it “Chicken Little.” The Nuggets turn out to be no more than half chicken “meat” and the rest fat, cartilage, bone, blood vessels and nerves.
While the real content of Chicken McNuggets may disgust some of us, there is nothing inherently wrong with using otherwise unusable parts of a chicken to create tasty food. People have always found ingenious ways to make the inedible edible: witness chit’lins (chitterlings) and gribenes. Chit’lins are the intestines of a pig, stewed for several hours and sometimes fried into what some consider a delicious treat. Gribenes are a by-product of schmaltz making. Excess chicken skin is cut into small pieces and sautéed in a pan until the schmaltz (fat) is rendered. The “cracklings” are removed, and caramelized onions and seasonings added for a treat that in pre-low-fat diet days was well-loved by many Jews.
Now that we know that fat, even animal fat, is not the cause of weight gain, diabetes and sickness in our American diet, who knows? These items may become popular once again. Coming soon to a summer near you: Gribenes and chit’lin stands!
What we do know is that when a “value added” product comes to us via the food industry, we can assume the way the product was turned into something that will “add value” for the industry probably decreases value for us. We can expect the raw food is subjected to heat and/or speedy, mechanized processes that result in undesirable changes in the food product (from the health standpoint), or cheap oils high in omega 6s are used or sugar or undesirable chemicals are added.
A real value-added product is one made from scratch with the best, whole food ingredients. An example is “Fatoush,” a way that Middle Eastern cooks found to use up stale pita. For a gluten-free version, leave out the pita. Although delicious with it, it is substantial, satisfying and delicious without it. A few chickpeas thrown in will replace the protein and B vitamins of the wheat, some avocado or olives will add fat, and walnuts will add crunch. No designer gluten-free products needed, just real food!
Fatoush means “crushed” or “broken” and refers to the Pita croutons that are a prominent feature of this salad.
Romaine, 1 “head”
Spinach, 1 quart
Radicchio, 1/2 “head”
Plum Tomato, 4 large
Cucumber, 1 large or 2 small
Green Onions, 1 bunch
Mint, 4-6 sprigs (1/4 cup chopped)
Garlic, 1-2 cloves crushed (opt.)
Lebanese Pita, 1 quart pita strips
Extra Virgin Olive Oil, 1/4 – 1/2 cup
Lemon Juice of 1/2 – 1 lemon
Sumac, 1 TB
Salt, to taste
Cut 2 Lebanese pitas into 2″ x 1/2″ strips and toast lightly or dry in oven. Set aside. Shred (slice thinly) the Romaine, spinach and radicchio. All greens should be in 2″ x 1/4″ strips. Deseed tomatoes and cucumbers. Petite dice (1/4″-1/2″ dice) radishes, tomatoes and cucumbers. Chop green onions and mint. Crush garlic. Toss the veggies, garlic and pita croutons together gently with the sumac. Toss again with extra virgin olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice and salt to taste. Gluten-free: leave out pita and add chickpeas, avocado, olives and/or walnuts.
Happy, healthy eating!
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