What is real food?

While riding the tube through London last month, I mentioned to my father-in-law that my favorite restaurant in Arizona is True Food Kitchen.

“What makes it so special?” he asked.

I paused, playing a game of mental chess in my head. They serve food, I thought. But, doesn’t every restaurant? No, like real food. As opposed to fake food? Well, yes.

We emerged from the Underground around Saint Paul’s Cathedral and popped in at a little cafe called EAT. With the slogan, The Real Food Restaurant, perhaps EAT could articulate my perspective better. We ordered sandwiches, wraps, and salads. As everyone turned over the packages to read a short list of ingredients, I smiled. Nothing we couldn’t pronounce. Nothing you couldn’t pick up at the local farmer’s market. Just food, the definition of which remained amorphous.

With modifiers such as honest, real, whole, and true multiplying faster than yogurt cultures, a consuming public should square up with what exactly we’re eating if not food. And what should we expect from a restaurant, market, or product claiming to provide us real food?

In his book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan recounts the first time he heard the advice to “just eat food.” He was baffled. “Of course you should eat food–what else is there to eat?”

Quite a bit, it turns out.

“Today there are thousands of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket,” Pollan writes, “novel products of food science.” Designed to resemble food, these products seduce us with their health claims and deceive our senses into eating more of them while a profiteering industry churns out new ones each year.

Gulp.

So what is real food? The grassroots movement Real Food Challenge provides a thorough albeit cumbersome definition:
Real Food is food which truly nourishes producers, consumers, communities, and the earth. It is a food system–from seed to plate–that fundamentally respects human dignity and health, animal welfare, social justice and environmental sustainability.

Okay, so what does that mean? We need something a little more tangible. Something we can tuck into our reusable shopping bag, recycled from a vegetable-ink-dyed, burlap sack of fair-trade, green, Guatemalan coffee beans.

Pollan provides a set of guidelines in In Defense of Food that moves us past the theoretical and into the practical:
• Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
• Avoid food products containing ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, more than five in number, or that include high-fructose corn syrup.
• Avoid food products that make health claims.
• Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.
• Get out of the supermarket whenever possible.

So let’s put Pollan’s real food rules to the test with a random sample from the local super market.

 

It should come as no surprise that a box of toaster pastries with a shelf life extending well into the next congressional term is not food. Assume for a moment that your great grandmother would recognize the frosted brown sugar cinnamon treats as sustenance. That feat aside, the front of the box makes bold health claims–even referencing the Olympics–while the back of the packages lists over 30 ingredients, including high fructose corn syrup, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and tertiary butylhydroquinone. Huh?

So Pop Tarts isn’t real food. But, you didn’t need me to tell you that. What about something we all think of as healthy? Luna Bars proclaim their virtue on the front of the package, “The Whole Nutrition Bar for Women.” You would assume that a whole nutrition bar would contain whole foods. Not so. Luna tops Pop Tarts with a whopping 42 ingredients–not counting all of the added vitamins and minerals added back in to replace the ones refined out of the other ingredients–the first of which is isolated soy protein, a highly-refined byproduct of soybean oil production that more than one prominent doctor has referred to as frankensoy. Yum.

Now that we know what isn’t food, what do we eat? Let’s start with the two final guidelines Pollan provides in his real food rubric: stick to the perimeter of the supermarket or skip it entirely in favor of a farmer’s market. Meat, fish, eggs, fresh fruit, milk, cheese, and fresh vegetables all pass the test with ease. Certainly those departments contain the renegade tube of neon yogurt or industrially-farmed, antibiotic-injected, corn-fed meat product, but simply check them against the preceding guidelines to weed out the foodlike substances.

So, what about True Food Kitchen? Does it pass Pollan’s test? That required a visit. When I returned from England, I sat down to dinner before jet lag had even subsided.

I ordered a cucumber lemonade with honey and scanned the menu: Watermelon and Heirloom Tomato Salad, Teriyaki Brown Rice Bowl, Roasted Chicken, and my personal favorite, Spaghetti Squash Casserole. Even my neolithic ancestors would recognize these dishes.

The general manager stopped by our table as we finished dinner. I asked him, “Isn’t it strange that a restaurant could legitimately distinguish itself with the claim of serving real food?” He smiled, knowingly.

“We make everything from scratch,” he said. “That’s why our prep tables are out here where everyone can see them. We don’t have any storage room for canned foods because everything is fresh.”

He says the movement toward real food is gaining traction as more and more people discover how wonderful they feel when they just eat food.

What a concept.