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Saturday, June 15, 2013

A case for cooking with single-ingredient foods

What is a single-ingredient food product? It's a food product that either needs no ingredient label at all (whole fruits, vegetables or grains), or when you turn the package over, the list is short, maybe just the base food and water (and maybe salt), or possibly some vitamins and minerals added (as in the case of liquid milk).

In the last two decades, there has been an explosion of flavorings, colorings and additives to the foods that line our supermarket shelves. Foods that used to be so simple, have now been re-created as complex products, with proprietary information that is rarely divulged to the general public. Have you ever phoned a food manufacturer for ingredient information? You would think I was asking for the top secret pass code to the vault at Fort Knox. All I wanted to know is, what goes into a brand's flavored coffee?

Single-ingredient foods seem to be passing the way of the covered wagon. Nostalgic to think about, but not really profitable for the giant food manufacturers. And this is a problem.

Food manufacturers have been working to create ultra-appealing products, through the use of added ingredients, such as flavorings, colors and other additives. Teams of market researchers work in tandem with kitchen chemists to produce more lemony lemonade, yellow-er cakes, cheesier-appearing mac and cheese, and softer whole grain breads, than any home-cook can do using basic ingredients. These contrived food products are as enticing in their aroma and looks, as they are memorable on your tongue.

Check that box of cake mix in your pantry. Are there any colors added? A common trick of the trade is to add coloring to the mix, to fool you into thinking the product is richer in flavor. Do you know what? I don't like to be fooled. I had to bake a cake using a mix last month. It was yellow cake mix, and it called for whole eggs added to the dry mix. So, it should have come out yellow on it's own, right? My scratch-baked yellow cakes always come out yellow. But the manufacturer of the mix didn't think their product would be quite YELLOW enough. More yellow coloring implies richer flavor.

A product with more implied flavor, sells better. Plain and simple. The main goal of the major food manufacturers is to get you hooked. You see a boxed product on the shelf. It looks better than you have ever baked from scratch. And so, you return to the supermarket, week after week, to buy your family's new favorite manufactured food products. Don't be deceived by the pretty picture on the front of the box. Always check the ingredients to know what you're buying.

Besides being deceptive, why is ultra-enhancing a food product a problem? Well, for starters, how can you get a child to choose a plain piece of fruit over a additive-filled, super colorful, aroma-enticing pouch of fruit snacks? And it isn't just children. Fully grown adults have trouble making the healthier selections. Have you ever made scratch mac and cheese? It was probably a pale shade of cheesy orange, in comparison to the blue-box mac and cheese product. You set the two dishes side by side, scratch-made mac and cheese, and blue-box mac and cheese. I think that the bright orange stuff is going to have a lot of appeal for the non-nutrition savvy person. And yet, the scratch made mac and cheese, if made well, can be a main course, with protein, calcium, and whole grains. While the blue-box stuff is best left as a side dish to an otherwise healthy meal. So, nutritive value is another very compelling reason to opt for the close-to-nature version of our foods.

The other significant problem with these ultra-enhanced food products affects so many in our population. These extra ingredients, even in minute amounts, cause allergic or sensitivity problems for many of us. Case in point, I have a strong allergy to malted barley flour and extract (as well as some gluten sensitivity). I had bought a small bag of decaf French vanilla flavored coffee for myself to have as a calorie-free treat, without even thinking about the ingredients. It's coffee, right? How bad can that be?

So, I was enjoying my cups of flavored coffee, over the course of a month or so, and I wind up with a severe gluten sensitivity reaction, the one that brought me back to GF living. But I didn't realize that it was this coffee that I may have been slowly poisoning myself with. (Obviously, without lab testing, I can't be 100% certain, but with a series of eliminations, it appears that this was one of the culprits, at the least.) No where on the packaging was there any mention of malted barley extract. It simply stated that it was artificially flavored.

After about 2 weeks of feeling pretty good on a GF and dairy-free diet, I had another reaction. I scoured my food journal and could not come up with one single slip. I had been faithful to the GF thing, completely. No eating out, cooking all my food at home, watching out for cross-contamination in the kitchen. The only change I could identify was that I had run out of my plain decaf coffee and been using the artificially-flavored French vanilla every day, several times per day. I went online. Did some research, and discovered that I am not the first to have a gluten or allergic reaction to this kind of coffee or artificial vanilla flavor in general.

It appears that, in the US at least, some artificial vanilla flavoring is made with some sort of malted barley extract. This does not have to be listed on a product like artificial flavorings or flavored coffees, here in the US. Simply "artificial flavorings" is enough in labeling. Well, not only do I have some gluten sensitivity, but I am also allergic to malted barley. I've known this for 25 years, and have done a good job reading labels on food products and avoiding ones which clearly state this as an ingredient. But some things have managed to slip past me over the years.

Recently, I had been sipping "poison" several times per day, completely oblivious to any possibility that I was bringing harm upon myself. The flavored coffee has since been put away. My husband, who does not have gluten or malted barley issues, will probably enjoy the last few cups. And I am symptom-free once again.

I never paid close enough attention to all-purpose flour, either, in my home-baking, thinking that if I made it at home, then I was in control of the ingredients. Well, in my kitchen audit this last month, I really read all packages, including my 50-lb sack of all-purpose flour. Malted barley flour is an added ingredient to many US brands of all-purpose flour, as it feeds yeast, caramelizes the crust and improves texture and flavor of many baked goods. It's typically not added to 100% whole wheat flour, just so you know.

I had always known not to eat malted barley extract, but not thought about malted barley flour. If I return to gluten baking for myself, I'll be trying one of the brands that is free from malted barley flour.

And what about artificial vanilla flavoring that we buy in small bottles for home baking? I have started another batch of home-brewed, real vanilla, but it won't be done infusing for another couple of months. So, to tide us over, I bought a small bottle of artificial vanilla. All the ingredients' listing states is "water, sugar, caramel color, artificial flavor, citric acid, sodium benzoate". There is no information on the ingredients used in the artificial flavor. I had been adding this artificial vanilla extract to my gluten-free brownies, for the past month, and did have a few stressful days, when I ate more than a couple of the brownies. Here I thought I was "being good" in my eating.

If I had been smart to begin, I would have researched every ingredient that went into my home cooking/baking. You live a little, you learn a lot. I know better now.

So where does this leave me? My cooking (and eating) style has shifted to using primarily single-ingredient foods. I've cooked and baked this way, for the most part, for years. But now I'll be even more diligent about what I consume. Any multiple-ingredient foods that I cook with will be scrutinized. That means I may be making my own ketchup, worcestershire and steak sauces this summer. I'll forgo manufactured extracts and flavorings. Even something as simple as baking powder has more ingredients on the label than are really necessary. A home-blend of cream of tarter and baking soda will work well in practically all baking (you just can't "hold" the batter or dough, once the dry and wet ingredients are mixed, without losing some of the leavening power). I'm now very glad that I make yogurt, bake bread, can salsa, pickles and chutney, and make pie dough from scratch. These activities that seem so very homemake-y, are the very activities that will keep potentially allergenic and sensitive food products and additives out of our family's diet. When you cook or bake using single-ingredient foods, you can see in an instant, the harm or health you'll bring to the table.

You may not have any food allergies or sensitivities in your household. But you may care about the wholesomeness of your meals. Cooking and baking from scratch, using single ingredients, will deliver whole foods' nutrition and save you some money, to boot. What's to lose?!


  1. Lili
    Excellent post. I've always been the one who loves the following example on a food label:

    Ingredients: oats.

    : )

    1. Hi Carol,
      I know what you mean -- on my sack of brown rice it says "ingredients: brown rice". It's both a satisfying thought, knowing that it isn't touched with other ingredients, and also humorous to me, that they would even put that on the label.

  2. Lots to think about after reading your post, even for those without GF issues. I am always up for cookbook recommendations that use basic, natural ingredients. I like "Super Natural Every Day" Heidi Swanson. She has a fab website too.

    1. Hi Jen,
      Thanks for the recommendation. I'll check out her site and see if our library has her cookbook. I'm a big fan of Jane Brody's Good Food Book. It's a slightly older book, from the 80s. She keeps her recipes simple, using whole foods, and emphasizes lower sugar and fat, and increasing fruits/veggies/whole grains.

    2. Been a fan of Jane Brody since high school!

  3. This makes me think about when my mother suddenly developed food allergies in the 80's. She had to eliminate everything from her diet and eat just rice. Slowly every week she would add a new food. It took her a year to figure things out. It turns out that she was mostly allergic to additives in food. Back then there were no natural or additive free products on the market like there are today, so all of our food had to be grown by us. (Although flour from the store was okay.) It took a lot of work, but the food was good.

    1. Hi live and learn,
      That must've been a difficult time for your mom. It's frustrating, as for the most part, doctor's and dieticians will tell you to follow an elimination diet -- a very long and trying process.

      The additives really bother me. In a lot of cases, they're totally unnecessary, but they're to make the product more enticing, like the colorings. And I'm bugged by the types of fats that major manufacturers use, primarily cottonseed oil. From what I read on, Dr. Andrew Weil's website, cottonseed oil is a horrible fat for human consumption. Here's an excerpt:
      "cottonseed oil may contain natural toxins and probably has unacceptably high levels of pesticide residues (cotton is not classified as a food crop, and farmers use many agrichemicals when growing it). Be on the lookout for cottonseed oil in packaged foods and avoid products that contain it. Manufacturers like it because it's cheap, and products that say "may contain one or more of these oils" and list cottonseed, will almost certainly contain it."

      At least with home-baking, I can choose the very best ingredients to go into it, even if I'm not the best baker. At least I know it's healthy.

  4. I agree and use mostly whole foods. It is important to check labels; for instance, Rice Krispies now say "Goodness in simple grain" and you would think the only ingredient is puffed rice, but they are made of toasted milled rice and contain sugar, salt and malt extract. Another pet peeve I have is personal care and cleaning products that list "fragrance" as an ingredient - it could be any essential oil or chemical product.

    1. Hi anexacting,
      It's so annoyingly deceptive, when a food manufacturer claims "wholesome" or "simple". A consumer really has to read the ingredients listing. Because I can't have malt extract, I'm limited to cold cereals like puffed millet or rice, where the ingredients really are simple. And with cleaning products, most of the time, fragrance is not needed at all. We've just been conditioned to think that if it smells like perfume, then it must be clean.

  5. Last Sunday I woke up to realize I had forgotten to make cookies for a meeting at church. One of those "what can I throw together quickly" moments. I made Rice Krispie treats--and one of the women couldn't eat them because she's celiac and she couldn't have the malt extract in them. I was surprised to discover this about Rice Krispies (well, Aldi's version of them...).

    I had no idea all-purpose flour contained anything but, well, wheat. I suspect the better brands (Bob's Red Mill?) have a more pure ingredient list. I'll have to check it out. Although since none of us have food sensitivities I'm not sure I'd spend the extra money for it.

    1. Hi Kris,
      Oh, that's too bad for that one woman about the Rice Crispy treats! But if it makes you feel any better, there's a good chance she wasn't even thinking she would eat any of the cookies offered anyway.

      I always count it as a nice surprise if there's something like fruit or raw veggies to eat, at a reception or meeting. Last night my daughters had their HS graduation and there was a buffet snack afterwards. I wasn't thinking I'd be able to eat any of it. But they had a platter of meat, raw veggies and fruit.

      I haven't checked Bob's Red Mill, but I found a brand of white flour, sold in natural foods markets that does not contain malted barley flour. It's Arrowhead Mills unbleached flour. At the regular grocery store today I went down the baking aisle and every single bag of all-purpose flour had malted barley flour. You would think flour was just wheat flour.

    2. I just checked at the grocery store and couldn't find Bob's Red Mill in WHITE flour--they have a GF substitute flour (for the price of an arm and half a leg!) which might be worth it for a special occasion but maybe not for everyday use? You piqued my curiosity and I had to check! :)

    3. Hi Kris,
      So far, I've just found a couple of brands of white flour that are barley flour-free. Whole Foods 365 has an unbleached, all-purpose flour (blue/brown bag) that is free of barley, Hodgson Mills all-purpose flour, Arrowhead Mills Unbleached, Bob's Red Mill Organic Unbleached white flour (but their regular white flour does have barley flour), Martha White enriched bleached flour, and several brands of cake flour. All of these will be much more expensive than what I'm used to paying for just plain flour. But I can mitigate some of that cost by using more whole wheat flour (which doesn't have barley flour added) in my baking.

      And the high price on the gluten-free flour you found, has been my experience, too. I could see buying it for a birthday cake, or if I just had to have some yeast bread, but I'm doing okay for the time being with rice, potatoes, corn meal products, and some quick breads that I bake just for myself (and bake the regular way for the family).

  6. Oh, I can SOOOOO relate to this post! I'm a fairly compulsive ingredient label reader these days, but I still get myself in trouble from time to time. My latest adventure was with something called "inulin." Inulin is basically a dietary fiber, and lately they've been putting it in EVERYTHING! Inulin in and of itself is fairly innocuous, but unfortunately, most of the stuff used in commercial foods is derived from chicory root, and I am VIOLENTLY allergic to chicory! Of course, on the label they just list "inulin" with no reference to what plant it is derived from.

    Soooo... last time I had commercially made kefir, I took one sip and my tongue and lips started to swell. Sure enough, looked at the label and there it was - inulin! Ug!

    And then there are the spices - I'm violently allergic to celery, parsley and pretty much everything in that entire plant family. Of course, they generally aren't required to list these things separately on the product label... it usually just says "spices" or "natural flavorings." It's just SOOOOO frustrating!

    So, these days pretty much everything I buy is a single ingredient food. It's was a huge adjustment at first, and with each passing year it seems that more and more things that used to be OK either get re-formulated to add more new and exciting ingredients, or else I get more sensitive to minute quantities of allergens. Either way, I'm finding that more and more I have to try to find foods that are pretty much in the same state as they were when they came out of the ground!

    Most days I consider this to be a blessing, because it's made me much more aware of what I put into my mouth than most people are, but there are times when it would just be sooo nice to be able to wander into a restaurant and order anything that sounded good.

    1. Hi Cat,
      I find it so terrible that manufacturers don't have to specify some of the ingredients, such as spices or flavorings. It wouldn't kill them to just put it on the label. They wouldn't lose much business, as a result. For you, feeling like you are have increasing episodes of allergic reactions, it could be increased sensitivity, but you know, it also could be increased contamination in processing equipment.

      For example, with oats, which are thought to be naturally low in gluten, if kept totally separate from glutinous crops -- the harvesting, trucking and milling for oats is often done on equipment used for barley, wheat or rye, with no cleaning of equipment between grains. Contamination occurs in a surprising amount of commercial oats.

      The same could be happening with herbs and spices.

    2. Wow... that's a very interesting hypothesis that I hadn't actually considered. My step-mom, who is an allergist is always after me to go have more extensive testing done because cases like mine are extremely rare, and she thinks I'm probably not allergic to quite as many things as I think I am. But I've had reactions to all of the many things on my list... or at least to things that contained the suspect item on the ingredient list - but maybe if it was cross-contamination the list could shrink a bit.

      Anyhow, it's a very interesting thought, thanks for bringing it up!

  7. We don't have any food allergies but this is concept of eating or preparing something as it came out of the ground/original state is part of our new diet. I think we can only get healthier by eating this way. Great series of posts!

    1. Hi Cheapchick,
      I think you and your husband are on the right track with your new diet/meal plan. You can only improve your health. I know I always feel better on the insides when I've eaten really "clean" for a day. And whole foods cooking just tastes so much better and fresher. Mmmm, now I'm getting hungry! Better go make dinner soon!

  8. Yes, thanks so much for this. I can't stand what I consider to be the lying and the cheating of the food manufacturers. So, I"m voting with my feet. Last week we made jam. With fruit and sugar. This week, we made our own ketchup.

    Hope you don't have any more nasty surprises and continue to improve.

    I am going to make your brownie bites just as soon as I can find millet flour.

    1. Hi Jessica,
      It's a gripe of mine, too -- all the additives to make something look better than it will really be. Bravo on making your own jam and ketchup! Ketchup is next on my list. I've never liked commercial ketchup, but my family loves it. I may just like it if I make it myself. I just want our food to taste real, and fresh.

    2. It helps to keep an old storebought ketchup bottle to, um, store your home-made in ..... There's quite a few recipes around too, I had to try three before I found one that the Boy liked.

    3. Thanks for the tip, Jessica!

  9. !!! Maybe it's malted barley that's what's been giving me allergy problems! (Long story, but I got tested for wheat negative, and some wheat products give me problems and some don't, suggesting it's not the wheat itself.) I'm going to be on the lookout for that.

    1. Hi nicoleandmaggie,
      There's a brand of white flour that doesn't contain malted barley flour. It's Arrowhead Mills Unbleached flour, typically sold in natural foods stores. I am considering giving it a try, along with gluten-free oats, just in case my problem has been barley all along, and not just generically gluten. After reading how easily it is for oats to be contaminated with barley (and wheat, rye), it made me think that maybe a certified GF oats might work.

      Anyways, good luck figuring out what you're reacting to!

  10. I am a compulsive label reader as well, but sometimes I get tripped up. While doing the $21 Challenge I bought cocoa powder that had "flavour" as an ingredient because the shop didn't have the one I usually buy. It had a powdery texture which wasn't very nice. And surely plain cocoa powder has enough taste that it doesn't need extra flavouring!

    I also cook mainly with one ingredient foods - both to exclude additives and just because the food tastes better! I make my own lacto-fermented ketchup, and find it so much better than the commercial stuff. It lasts forever too. Once I finally get through this batch I will post the recipe on my blog.

    1. Hi Economies,
      I bought tomato paste this last month, to try out a bunch of recipes for ketchup. My family has just about finished off the large can of ketchup that I bought a few months ago. I'm hoping they are not too particular about their ketchup. I don't eat it at all, so I can't really say what would be good vs. bad in ketchup. When I want a tomato-ey flavor on a burger, I use plain tomato paste with a sprinkling of salt.


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