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The Value of Whole Foods When “Healthy” Foods Aren’t So Healthy

The Value of Whole Foods When “Healthy” Foods Aren’t So Healthy

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Abbott: I say, “Who’s on first? What’s on second? Don’t Know’s on third.”
Costello: Are you the manager?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: You gonna be the coach too?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: And you don’t know the fellows’ names?
Abbott: Well, I should.
Costello: Well then, who’s on first?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: I mean the fellow’s name.
Abbott: Who.
Costello: The guy on first.
Abbott: Who.
Costello: The first baseman.
Abbott: Who.
Costello: The guy playing…
Abbott: Who is on first!
Costello: I’m asking YOU who’s on first.
Abbott: That’s the man’s name.
Costello: That’s who’s name?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: Well go ahead and tell me.
Abbott: That’s it.
Costello: That’s who?
Abbott: Yes.

Chef, a guest would like to speak with you,” the waitress exclaims, frustrated. In a very much confused state, the guest begins her complaint. “My burger doesn’t taste like a burger and it’s not fully cooked.” “Ok, let’s take a look at it,” I reply. Seeing that the item in front of the guest is the “NOT A BURGER” from the menu, I probe with a few questions to confirm exactly what is happening. Holding a menu, I ask the guest to please point to which item she ordered to be sure I have the right information to best care for her. She points to the item that clearly reads, in bold font: “NOT A BURGER | house made vegan patty | lettuce | tomato | veganaise | onion straws | vegan brioche bun” and tells me again, “my burger doesn’t taste like a burger.” With a smile, I reply “ma’am, you ordered the ‘NOT A BURGER.’ This item is NOT a burger. It is a plant-based protein patty. It is not an imitation beef burger, it is plants being plants. The reddish-purple color comes from organic beets—I assure you it is fully cooked and the color doesn’t indicate that it is ‘rare’ or underdone. It is NOT a burger.” Much like our Abbott and Costello vaudeville skit, this bit goes on a while. The humor in overtly and ironically naming this dish “NOT A BURGER” was lost here. A disc-shaped plant-protein patty made only of organic, non-GMO, gluten free, unprocessed, whole-food ingredients, grilled and served with lettuce/tomato/fried onions on a round bun was just too confusing.

Unfortunately, we too often find this type of linear thinking in life and for me, as a chef who advocates slow, whole, clean, functional, and sustainable foods; seeing the passive, bifurcated thought process through which much of the public approaches food can be a bit challenging. In fact, whether it is a result of conditioning, a goal of big business and marketing firms, a factor of culture/history, or a misstep in our thought process, accessing food that is good for the planet, good for society, good for our bodies, and sustainably produced is much more difficult than it should be. Since the dawn of industrial agriculture and industrially produced, processed food in the mid 20th century, access to this type of food for many communities around the world is much further removed from day-to-day life now than it has historically ever been.

What You Perceive Is What You Get
I’m not here to debate the pros and cons of being able to grow and produce food on a large scale (especially during times of war or global economic depression and famine), or to critique the worth of many new industrialized plant-based foods, but rather to continue to ask questions, challenge our perception of our modern food system, and to hopefully inspire some rethinking and positive changes. I believe there are multiple factors at play here. In my opinion our approach to food is very much an issue of perception, part of which is related to our food vocabulary and education. Another is the misperception of the global food system at large—which we must remember that, as consumers, we have the potential to effect tremendous changes simply by using our voices through our choices.

Not a Burger Patty

“Not a Burger,” whole-food, plant-based protein patty, topped with artisan pickles from Naples Canning Co.

Speaking of the global food system, perhaps you are familiar with the 1973 Charlton Heston sci-fi thriller Soylent Green (based upon the 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison), in which a dystopian version of the future (year 2022) faces scarcity of natural resources and mysteriously processed foods? Well, today, in the year 2021, you can have a sausage-and-egg fried rice that contains no sausage, no eggs, and no rice. And yes, there is also an actual company named “Soylent,” founded in 2013 by a group of Silicon Valley engineers who, incidentally, are well aware of the connotation of their name. Products and companies like Impossible Foods (now owned by PepsiCo), Beyond Meats, JUST Eggs, and Right Rice all market themselves as a nearly-miracle food that is an apples-to-apples replacement for animal products, and that because they are vegan (made from plants—no animal ingredients) they are inherently “better” in all regards.

From JUST Eggs: “The egg is the world’s most eaten animal protein, so we reimagined it…. A better egg…” This company has recently launched GOOD Meat—a “cultured” meat (laboratory grown from chicken cells) available exclusively at 1880, a private club/restaurant in Singapore. Upon many hours of research and reading through websites of industrial/laboratory-rooted, plant-based food companies, mission statements, company histories, FAQs, and ingredient lists, a similar motif appears: a great deal of eloquently written material about a desire to make positive changes for the future of food and to solve tomorrow’s food problems today. Data is shown on how much less land and water is used in plant foods vs. livestock and how plants scrub CO2 instead of producing it as animals do; how these substitutes are nutritionally equal or better than their animal-based counterparts; and of course that in making plant-based foods, no animals are harmed. Ultimately, the goal of this very well-crafted content is to market these products as something inherently better that you not only want, but need.

Putting the Nature Back in Health Foods
Admittedly, what these food scientists are doing is remarkable and I support creating accessible, nutritious, globally healthy and sustainable food. However, in light of all the hubris-driven capabilities of humankind while taking these steps, do we really believe we can improve upon what nature has done for millennia? Besides asking “can we?” and “how much money will this make?” did anyone stop to ask, “should we?” Plant foods, in their unadulterated natural forms, are already packed with amino acids, proteins, micronutrients, antioxidants, and all the nutrients we need. Do we really need to see the flora of this earth so heavily processed in laboratories that we don’t even recognize them as plants in the end? Do we need to have a plant substitute for eggs, dairy, beef, and so on? How much energy is used in the production and transportation of laboratory- based foods? What is their end footprint—is it any better than local, seasonal, slow food-style meats? Is it possible to produce eggs, dairy, or beef, in a manner that is ethical and just as healthy and environmentally sustainable as their faux plant counterparts? We’ll save this longer discussion for another time, but for now, the short answer is “yes.” Documentaries such as Kiss the Ground research regenerative agriculture, and livestock companies such as Joyce Farms and Polyface Farms raise animals on grasslands that are biodiverse and practice seasonal pasture rotation of animals that mimic natural migration patterns. Scientists are now finding this type of regenerative farming sequesters carbon and has positive environmental impact.

Not a Burger sandwich

“Not a Burger” patty, local heirloom tomato, lettuce, onion, mushrooms, fresh baked sesame bun.

Organic Local Beets

Slow roasted organic local beets are the star for flavor + nutrition.

Growing up in a heavily agrarian community in Hawaii, we had great access to fresh, natural foods. In the late ’80s my friend’s parents, who were vegan, were excited to try and share with us a soy-based vegan cheese. I remember first thinking, “What? Why? If it’s not made with milk, what is it?” It wasn’t very good, the texture was like plastic, and the flavor was just not there. Unfortunately, many of us have had these negative food experiences with alternative foods and now associate a certain stigma with them, oftentimes before even trying them. A big part of this problem is perception and managing expectations. If someone gives me a glass of strained, puréed almonds, water, and seaweed-based thickeners and tells me—who grew up drinking super local, fresh, grass-fed, pasture-raised, whole milk—that this is a glass of milk, I’m most likely (A) going to be confused and (B) be disappointed and not going to care for it. However, if this almond drink were to be made in a way that uses fresh, high-quality, whole-food ingredients with an appealing taste (maybe with a pinch of sea salt and sprinkle of cinnamon…hey, I’m a chef after all), then served to me as a delicious chilled almond drink, I’m much more likely to receive it with an open mind and enjoy it.

The Limitations of Labeling
The plant-based food industry, my palate, and my perceptions have come a long way since I was 8 years old. I have observed that many people make one of two preconceptions upon hearing a word like vegan in the description of a food: (A) “Here we go, more of that weird, flavorless, tree-hugging, hipster food” and automatically assume it won’t be a good experience or (B) “Vegan, this is so great! It is made with plants, which are ‘natural,’ and no dirty CO2-producing animals were involved; therefore, this must be super healthy for me and for the environment.” Or, on rare occasions we have (C) All of the above.

Let’s think about these things for a moment. A mango is vegan; is it a weird, flavorless food? Truffles—one of the most valuable foods in the world—also vegan. Most fresh-baked breads, such as an olive oil-rosemary focaccia, is vegan. They are not described as such, however, and we therefore simply take them as they are and openly enjoy them. Do you see where I’m going? On the other hand, donuts are (or can be) vegan, as are Oreo cookies…are these foods inherently healthy for you and the planet? Much like the confused “Not A Burger” lady, many of us have been programmed to have these preconceptions that if a food is labeled a certain way, it is better for us. We are raised “in the box” of a burger being made of beef and looking and tasting a certain way. As a chef, I’m classically trained to think we must exclusively use eggs, heavy cream, and butter to achieve certain textures and flavors. But what happens when we step out of the box, ask some questions, and seek a balanced answer that connects the dots of everything we’ve just covered?

I have found it to be a quite enjoyable challenge. In all the vast natural world of plants as ingredient options, can great flavors and textures be achieved without using the animal-based products I’ve been rigidly trained in while keeping the plant ingredients as unprocessed, whole, and close to their natural state as possible? Not because I am personally a subscriber to a vegan philosophy, but because I am a chef who, like a scientist, is driven to ask questions and make discoveries. Just because I was taught to use heavy cream to get a smooth, silky, rich mousse texture filled with the fats that boost flavor, does that mean there aren’t other ingredients that just as easily lend themselves to such results—without the need of a laboratory and a PhD in molecular engineering? I have discovered with simple ingredients like cashews, virgin coconut fat, avocados, raw cacao, and bananas, amazing dishes such as mousses; rich, creamy chocolate tortes; savory silky sandwich spreads, and many others can be created. As with any other type of cooking, all you need is high-quality, natural ingredients, a solid understanding of said ingredients, and good technique. The only dilemma left is whether to describe the dishes as vegan or plant-based—which appeals to some diners but turns away others—or to drop the need for labels altogether and simply call it food. Perhaps then we could skip the vaudeville act and go straight to enjoying delicious, clean, whole, unprocessed foods that are good for you, the planet, and the future.

Click HERE for a great recipe from Chef David Robbins for Garlic Herb Cashew Spread

Chef David Robbins (a true locavore chef) is an advocate for biodynamic agriculture, slow foods, clean eating/living, veggie forward cuisine, supporting family owned local businesses, and spreading education on all aspects of sustainability. Growing up on a small family farm in Hawaii gave him a unique appreciation and perspective for the places and people that produce our food. Chef Robbins launched “The Sunday Supper Club,” in collaboration with various local experts connected to a wide span of clean living components. Robbins describes the events as “a way to experience community, good eats, whole food philosophy, and meaningful conversations. His vision is to recreate the sense of healthy connectivity people had with the earth, their food, farmers, bakers, and neighbors that has been lost to too many of us in recent decades.

IG: @chefdavidrobbins