Considering that this time of year many people are doing or thinking about doing a ‘cleanse’ I thought I’d write about a ‘cleanse’ for pantry and fridge. After all, if you continue to have less-than-healthy food products around, the cleansing of you won’t have long lasting effects! I have a friend who dislikes using the word ‘clean’ when talking about food – he says he expects all the food he eats is clean, meaning not dirty. Of course, in the world of better eating/good nutrition ‘clean’ means something else and he knows that. I get his point but haven’t found a better word to describe what is meant. So I want to talk about cleaning your food choices up. Cleansing your kitchen may mean replacing some food with better choices, removing some altogether, and adding in some new items. It many also mean switching food storage containers to avoid certain elements.
So what is ‘clean’ food? Generally it means food as close to its origins as possible, optimally organically grown. Minimal processing, few added ingredients of unknown purpose. Raw, plain nuts rather than those covered with questionable flavor coatings. Applesauce made from apples, period; no need for sugar, salt, preservatives. Pure sea salt, not highly-refined salt with anti-caking additives and stripped of trace minerals.
Let’s start in the pantry. Because I like to cook my pantry has a lot of basic ingredients –nuts & seeds, various grains and beans, flour, cocoa, honey, oils, vinegars. Not too much in the way of prepared foods but a few things. If you are like me, there are products you grew up with, that your mom trusted to feed you and that you buy for your family. A certain peanut butter, specific saltines, a particular soup brand. Maybe you buy it just because of its history in your family, maybe you tried some other brands and they never lived up to the one. Even so, chances are the formulation of that tried-and-true brand is not the same as it was when you were 10. I know I have been disappointed when returning to an old favorite only to find it was very changed, or my tastes had outgrown it. Well, products can change and your tastes change too. So let’s look at what you have. Does the peanut butter contain palm or peanut oil? Sugar? Why? Don’t peanuts produce oil; is there a need to add oil? Why would sugar be added – to feed our addiction to sweet? Heck, you’re gonna put jelly on the sandwich anyway. (Just kidding, of course!) Look for a brand that is made from peanuts, maybe with salt. Personally I prefer it unsalted, but if you are more accustomed to salt in your peanut butter, go ahead and get that one. You can always ease into unsalted peanut butter. How about the salsa? (Yes, I know fresh, homemade is better, but it’s not always tomato season.) Is there sugar added to the salsa? Again, why? Isn’t salsa supposed to be spicy? The tomatoes have naturally occurring sugar; adding sugar just feeds the craving for sweet things, and increases the sugar load in your day. I just noticed the tomato soup I have in my pantry has added sugar! Had not looked at the list carefully, but guess I’ll re-think this brand in the future. At least it doesn’t have: High Fructose Corn Syrup, Potassium Chloride, Flavoring, or Monopotassium Phosphate like a common national brand. Do you buy canned tuna or salmon? Hopefully you buy it packed in water not oil. Fish has its own oil, doesn’t need vegetable oil for flavor or stability. Again, I like it without added salt but that can be hard to find. Do you make your own pasta? No? Neither do I! What’s in the packaged pasta you buy? More than the durum wheat or grain it’s made from, and water? That’s really all pasta needs. I grew up with what I think is an iconic saltine cracker – crumbled in tomato soup, buttered with chili, smeared with peanut butter. That brand at least has unbleached flour although it is enriched, meaning the wheat is stripped of the bran and germ so has to have nutrients added. Yet they use soybean oil (GMO?) and cottonseed oil. I never buy products using cottonseed oil as it is not a food crop so who knows what it was sprayed with? Have chips? Some are better than others as far as being clean; taste obviously is too subjective for me to make any claims on it. But if the chips you buy are made from corn or contain soy or canola, even as oil (“… and/or vegetable oil”), be sure they are organic chips to avoid genetically engineered ingredients. Whole grains or potatoes, oil, salt and maybe sugar – all that’s needed for tasty chips. Obviously your pantry may have more items than these few, but hopefully you get the idea of what to watch for. So take an hour or so to review what you have and which may need swapping for a better choice.
Turning to the refrigerator, what’s hiding in there? Mine is packed pretty full but I keep a pretty good mental inventory. Mostly right now, a few days after market day, it’s got a lot of produce. This I have to monitor carefully so it doesn’t spoil on me. What’s the rest? Condiments, almond milk, soy creamer, white wine, and some jelly, among other things. What am I looking for in these products? For starters, I avoid carrageenan, which is prevalent in non-dairy products like plant milks and creamers. I don’t understand the need for sugar in most condiments, but confess that the ketchup and the barbeque sauce I have both have sugar added. I recall not finding a single offering of ketchup without sugar when I last looked, and do not feel like making my own! I do skip those that still use high fructose corn syrup, and would always stay away from any with artificial sweeteners. See ‘Sweet Addictions’ for more on why. Currently there are no pickles in our fridge because I am on a quest for good tasting, well-made pickles with basic pickle ingredients – cucumbers, vinegar, spices. Some brands have so many preservatives, which is what I thought the process of pickling did – preserve foods. Why add chemical preservatives? If you buy cheese, be sure to get real cheese and not “processed cheese food”; if you buy non-dairy varieties watch for carrageenan and non-organic soy and corn (starch).
Last thing to think about, in both pantry and fridge, is the containers foods come in or that you use to store foods. Use glass bowls or jars to store extras or leftovers, or use stainless steel. Avoid canned foods unless the can is labeled ‘BPA-free’. Some companies have moved away from BPA linings in canned foods, which were put in to protect the food from corrosion on the metal can and extend its shelf life. While some claim there is little or no risk to humans from BPA, many studies point to it being an endocrine disruptor and possible cause of cancer. Not worth the risk when there are products without the risk. Avoid buying foods in plastic containers, especially numbers 3, 6, and 7. Avoid re-using plastic water bottles – invest in a stainless steel bottle you can refill as needed. Throw out your old plastic bowls that melted in the microwave and are flaking, and don’t heat food in plastic or covered with plastic wrap in the microwave. Also be careful of storing or cooking food in aluminum foil. I know, I know, we’ve all done it. But it can leach aluminum into the food, especially acidic foods or those cooked at high temperatures, and too much aluminum in our bodies is considered a health risk.
I am not telling you to throw away what you currently have on hand, but as you need replacements, keep this in mind. It could mean having raw ingredients on hand to make your own spaghetti sauce for instance, or being more discriminating when buying ready-made. Read the labels, and if you aren’t sure what an ingredient is, look it up. You may need to move on to a different choice. Even if you aren’t doing a ‘cleanse’ of your food intake, cleaning up what you keep around the house will help you stay healthier.