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March 13, 2008

Foodlike substances

Filed under: American Food,Dieting,Fast food,Philosophy — Mr. Henry @ 6:58 pm


When asked what was her favorite food, Diana Vreeland famously responded “Salad, though I’m not sure it is food.”

Mr. Henry’s friend Bernard, superb home chef and coiner of original observations, declared decades ago that although he was giving the kids pizza one night, “Pizza is not food.”

Michael Pollan’s new book, In Defense of Food: an eater’s manifesto, declares: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

It’s a book replete with genius:

“Don’t eat anything you can’t pronounce.”

“Don’t eat anything that contains more than five ingredients.”

“Eat mostly plants, especially green leaves.”


And so on until you want to sign the manifesto and wear the button on your lapel, if not for its practical good sense than certainly for its wit.

Of this three-part directive, the trickiest one to follow is “Eat food.” Modern industrialized food markets are cluttered with “foodlike substances” – comestibles that at first bite seem tasty and toothsome but quickly sicken or addict the organism.

As a quick reference for friends and relations, Mr. Henry provides the following inventory of everyday horrors:

pollan_poster_image.pngFoodlike substances
packaged cupcakes
packaged snacks
chips of all varieties
American cheese
processed cheese
cheese sticks, twists, etc.
hot dogs
Pizza Hut,
Subway sandwiches
Cosi focaccia
bottled salad dressings
processed peanut butter
“snack food”
breakfast bars
pop tarts
sweetened breakfast cereals

Drinklike substances
vitamin water
protein drinks
fruit drinks


  1. Oh, DVF, salad is most definitely food…unless it’s a McSalad. Just make sure there’s more to it than iceberg lettuce and bleu cheese mixed with mayonnaise.

    I would also argue that there are pizzas in this world that are seriously food. No, not the ones in cheap, fast-food(ish) outlets, but a good, fresh pizza with fresh vegetables and a proper mozzarella is both tasty and reasonably nourishing.

    One thing with the ‘no more than five ingrediants’ and don’t ever eat aything you can’t pronounce thing: Bah, humbug! The lentil stew I made for dinner last night had at least seven ingrediants and was both mighty tasty and thouroughly nourishing.

    I do agree that throwing more ingrediants at a dish isn’t always helpful, but considered use of what one has on hand doesn’t always fit an arbitrary number. And a lack of skill with language shouldn’t limit one’s culinary options. Mr. Twistie can’t pronounce a French word to save his life. Does that mean he should never be allowed to try eating Coq au Vin? Or does Mr. Pollan actually mean that to be about not eating lots of chemical additives? If that’s what he means, I think that’s what he should say…in which case I’ll agree with him whole-heartedly.

    As much as I agree that we should be firmly aware of what we’re putting into our bodies, I kind of hate having a list of arbitrary, hard and fast rules placed before me. It’s the contrarian in me, I know, but I feel a burning need to poke holes in rule lists like that.

    At least I’ll never drink the Kool Aid. That stuff is VILE!

    Comment by Twistie — March 14, 2008 @ 12:14 pm

  2. Thank you for mentioning the Budweiser under “Drinklike Substances”. I had a conversation with a coworker today about beer and a lovely new white beer that has recently come out, which she had not tried. Then I mentioned another lovely beer, that she had not tried. So I asked her what kind of beer she usually drank, and she replied, “Bud Lite”. My immediate reaction? “That’s not BEER!”

    She drinks it because she’s a Type 1 diabetic, and it’s the only beer that doesn’t raise her blood sugar. That’s really the only excuse I can think of for anybody to drink that beer. (And the fact that it doesn’t raise your blood sugar is pretty telling of the nature of the beer, no?)

    Comment by La Petite Acadienne — March 14, 2008 @ 9:13 pm

  3. I think I’d have to add a slew of other seemingly real but tellingly not real substances to that list of nonfoods (things like what passes for butter and milk and most cheese in North America, and I’m not just talking about the “processed cheese food” slices, either). I can be overwhelmed by just how much of what we call “food” really isn’t.

    Even going to a “health food” store these days is a lesson in the language manipulation euphemistically called marketing. Anyone for some low carb pizza mix? “Healthy” low fat soy-fake cheese? Yogurt with “omega fatty acid” enrichment (no one knows where those fatty acids came from), patented live “cultures” with trendy brand names, and “zero percent” fat?

    It’s just too easy to feel like you’ve got to start from scratch in every sense of the word, with your own compost enriched soil, your own heritage seeds, your own unfrankensteined livestock…and then your own wits and creativity for preparing quick and nourishing foods—stuff you can throw together after 8 hours of work and other efforts. And it’s annoying to think a meal which uses real food is likely only to be offered in offensively expensive restaurants, where a chef who’s got the means and the staff to source out “real” foods can whip something up for you for a sizable portion of of your monthly mortgage payment.

    Which brings up that whole other issue–maybe one that can’t be mentioned without punishment: the cost of real foods, and who can actually access them. “Food on a budget” often means a diet of almost 100% of the items on the “foodlike” and “drinklike” substances lists.

    Comment by chachaheels — March 15, 2008 @ 3:54 am

  4. Whoever says that pizza is not food, has not had really great pizza. If they deliver, they don’t count.

    Comment by amisare waswerebeen — March 16, 2008 @ 12:50 pm

  5. My husband made a delicious pizza from scratch the other day – home-made dough, home-made sauce, spinach, onions, tomatoes, peppers and cheese. It was healthy and delish.

    I agree with the real food comment. We hate fast food. I do eat jam – hopefully that is not to be included with jelly. I do eat Basic 4 cereal but am trying to cut down on foods with packaging, even pastas. We want to try making more of our own food.

    Don’t agree with the five ingredients though. We love Indian food and I know just the spices come to more than five.


    Comment by Poochie — March 16, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

  6. The distinction between food and food-like substances is spot-on.

    But – five ingredients? Why?

    Comment by benvenuta — March 16, 2008 @ 5:22 pm

  7. tacos are not food? a nice corn tortilla, beans, rice, cheese, avocado? maybe some fish? really?

    Comment by trouble — March 16, 2008 @ 11:57 pm

  8. I’m going to throw my hat in the ring for pizza as well. Nothing pleases me more than a fabulous margherita with fresh moz, which I don’t think is too fattening or unhealthy.

    As for beer, I don’t drink it. An very occasional Heineken or microbrew blonde, but Bud has never passed these lips. And it shall stay that way.

    Comment by Glinda — March 19, 2008 @ 5:52 pm

  9. The five ingredients “rule” is for packaged foods. Of course, most recipes called for more than five ingredients!

    What is wrong with a subway sandwich? Other than there are better options in terms of taste.

    Comment by Maria — March 19, 2008 @ 8:14 pm

  10. Do you really want an answer to the Subway question? Okay:

    The bun… a lot of bread. It’s white bread. Even if they say it’s whole wheat, it’s all made from refined and processed flower that’s been bleached and deodorized and defatted and demineralized and then pumped full of things that can be a problem (for men specifically, like Iron).
    Then, it’s “flavoured” with things like MSG or its myriad other “legal” names.
    And then it’s made with margarine and/or shortening (which, any way you slice it, is 100% trans fat, all day, every day, made with rancid vegetable oil).

    Yes, its true, there are salad ingredients and there are cold cuts, not bad in themselves (though you can bet they’re not top quality, organic or free range artisanally made sausage that’s been sliced up thinly…which would be the ideal); and you know the salad’s iceberg lettuce and cardboard tomatoes–also not the best); the cheese is not really cheese but what they are legally bound to call a “processed cheese food product”. Another variation on the edible oil products known above as margarine or shortening.

    Then there are the dressings, which are slightly more liquefied versions of the above-mentioned edible oil products known as margarines and shortenings, once again “flavoured” with MSG in its variety of other aliases. And, often, sugar. Or worse, aspartame, potassium acesulfate, or Splenda. I think by now everyone knows what dangers these pose on the body, particularly for those with Diabetes I or II.

    Look, lots of restaurants make good sandwiches, even hamburgers with real meat and condiments you don’t have to be too terrified of, which can include the use of real (albeit not the best) cheese–but at least it’s stuff they can legally call cheese. They’re just not going to be fast food multinational corporations, or chain restaurants in general. Imagine a fresh bun baked in a real bakery, whole grain (made from real whole grain milled flour, I know these bakeries are out there) filled with things like the kind of albacore or yellow fin tuna you’d by picky about buying, or even real prosciutto or cold cuts (or heck, tofu you’ve marinaded with a vinaigrette you’ve made using real olive oil, real garlic, real pepper/salt/balsamic vinegar/whatever) and good creamy goat cheese or raw milk cheddar or slice buffalo milk mozza and fresh greens with flavour (arugula, baby spinach, etc). They don’t really cost that much more, but they may require you make them yourself or at least sit down to eat them. And not in your car, either.

    Comment by chachaheels — March 20, 2008 @ 2:29 pm

  11. Thanks for the info. I don’t own a car, BTW, nor do I usually (ok, ever) eat in fast food joints. Including Subway, which is why I asked, since I had the impression that they were healthier than other alternatives.

    Comment by Maria — March 21, 2008 @ 9:52 am

  12. Chachaheels, how do you know all that about Subway? Also, Splenda—I’m pretty sure—is the sugar substitute for those who have Diabetes…

    Also, I have to defend tacos and pizza. I’m not sure how you can compare those with packaged donuts and snacks, candy, McAnything, etc…

    Comment by la petite chou chou — March 24, 2008 @ 1:14 pm

  13. Splenda is a pantry basic in the Twistie household, but only – as la petite chou chou rightly points out – because Mr. Twistie is diabetic and would feel woefully left out if I never made anything sweet he could eat, too. If there were not a diabetic in the house, I wouldn’t keep any sort of sugar substitute on hand on a regular basis.

    Food like substance? Yes. With a purpose worth the using? Also yes.

    I’m all for tacos and pizza…unless we’re talking Taco Bell and Domino’s. Fast food versions are definitely food like substances, but the real thing in both cases is just plain brilliant food.

    Comment by Twistie — March 31, 2008 @ 9:53 am

  14. Twistie, you always crack me up.

    But you’re right. I’m thinking home made pizza and tacos…yum!

    Comment by la petite chou chou — March 31, 2008 @ 9:09 pm

  15. I hang my head in the shame but I love the Velveeta in the Mac and Cheese…. This is the quintessential “cheese Food” product and it is my comfort food when sad. Great with a 2002 Merlot and galic bread for a total carb overload…

    Comment by Jennie — April 3, 2008 @ 8:05 pm

  16. Over at TeenyManolo I’ve actually found an all-natural powdered peanut butter. Astronaut food gets real, or too good to be true? All the reviewers seem to adore it. If I can get my paws on some, I’ll give it a try, especially since it has one-third the calories of regular PB.

    Comment by raincoaster — April 4, 2008 @ 1:09 am

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