Have We Forgotten What Real Food Tastes Like?
By: Julie Mancuso, Founder and owner of JM Nutrition, nutritional counselling service by registered dietitians and nutritionists
A simple time of real food
I think we’ve lost something when it comes to the food we eat. It wasn’t always like this though. Not so many years ago, food was bought—in its natural state—at a market or store, prepared at home, cooked using a handful of ingredients, sprinkled with a spice or two, and voila: it was eaten.
There was no need for a seemingly endless selection of sauces, condiments and dressings, exotic foods and spices, and unpronounceable additives or flavour enhancers, that tempt the grocery store shoppers on every visit.
Because we’re curious, and let’s face it, because we get suckered into buying things easily, we swat the new barbecue sauce off the shelf and toss it on our shopping carts, eagerly anticipating the moment when we crack open the bottle at home and generously slather our slab of meat with it.
“…foods where the sauce becomes the flavour and centrepiece of the food, while the food on its own is virtually dismissed and labelled ‘bland’.”
Steak isn’t good enough anymore
It seems the slab of perfectly cooked, juicy meat by itself isn’t good enough anymore. Neither are freshly-made eggs, without being drowned by ketchup. The same thing goes for salad which, without some thick and bulky bottled dressing, wouldn’t taste like salad. And I’m just scratching the surface here because this applies to many foods we eat: foods where the sauce becomes the flavour and centrepiece of the food, while the food on its own is virtually dismissed and labelled ‘bland’.
There’s a better way
Admittedly, there is nothing wrong with wanting to improve the taste of food, naturally. We have been experimenting with taste improvement of food since our very beginning. We always seem to strive for new and better things, food included. It’s in our nature. And it’s a good thing, too. After all, delicious food is one of life’s great pleasures, and we don’t want to have that taken away from us.
“Food has become the be all and end all of many people’s lives.”
Help! I’ve lost my taste
But desensitizing ourselves from the actual taste of food by dumping all sorts of sauces, condiments and dressings—largely unhealthy ones—is a cause for concern, especially with the current obesity epidemic.
Related: Obesity management and support
The more we eat like this, the more we forget what food without these ‘extras’ tastes like. A case can be made that we have simply forgotten what real food tastes like.
So who can we hold accountable?
Ourselves? Sure, to an extent. But I feel it’s deeper than that.
Out of the kitchen
To start, I’d like to lay part of the blame on the food culture.
Food has become the be all and end all of many people’s lives. We now even have a widely-accepted term that describes people for whom eating food has become the number one hobby. And I’m not referring to chefs or food critics either. These people are colloquially known as ‘foodies’.
Foodies love food. They love to go out to restaurants and… well, eat. They try different foods, The more exotic, the better. They love to be one of the first to discover the culinary equivalent of Machu Picchu. They eat and then eat some more. They talk about food, take pics, post them on social media, and repeat the process over and over again.
In a way, this sounds like a great hobby, doesn’t it? Foodies don’t spend time at home cooking, and enjoy different foods all the time. Life is grand. It’s exciting, It’s convenient.
“…most restaurants use all sorts of unhealthy, fattening sauces, dressings and condiments which, while making the food taste better, obscure the taste of the food, desensitizing us…”
Enter the dietitian and nutritionist
Yes, at this point I am obliged to step in to put things in perspective.
Eating out at restaurants is fun. And it is no doubt convenient. I mean, who the heck wants to cook at home all the time, right?
Well, cooking at home is important and should be a priority, for many reasons—none more so than being in control of what you put on your food.
Read a related post from Health Fitness Revolution on why you should cook at home.
In addition, here are some strategies for meal planning success.
Aside from a few healthy exceptions, most restaurants use all sorts of unhealthy, fattening sauces, dressings and condiments which, while making the food taste better, obscure the taste of the food, desensitizing us from being able to enjoy simple, wholesome, healthy foods without all those delicious but unhealthy additions.
What happens next? We go home and cook, only to come to the stark realization that the food we just laboured over in our own kitchen doesn’t taste as good as the one we had Friday night at the restaurant. It tastes… a little bland.
I will argue that the reason why it doesn’t taste as good is because when we’re repeatedly bombarded with all sorts of flavours concocted by a chef in a restaurant, whose primary goal is to make the food taste as palatable as he can, and not healthy, then everything else pales in comparison.
But it doesn’t stop there because eating out is only a part of why people have forgotten what real food tastes like.
Throwing it down at home
Next on the blame menu are the cooking shows on tv.
While some people like to go out to restaurants, others prefer to stay home to cook. For these people, the television gods created cooking shows. As the popularity grew, the gods put together a series of these shows and cleverly weaved them into a channel. The food channel.
Do you believe in magic?
Oh, the things we can learn from the cooking sorcerers and sorceresses on the Food Network. I only wish I had a fraction of the culinary skills of these food wizards. Their know-how boggles the mind.
While educational and inspirational, the tv cooking shows leave a lot to be desired in terms of healthy cooking—generally speaking, of course. If these food masters aren’t hurling a pinch, or two, or eight, of salt into their pots, they’re heaving spoonfuls of sugar into their sauces. If they’re not adding mayonnaise by the ladle, they’re tossing in bacon strips, a dozen eggs and a couple of pounds of cheese, you know, just for taste.
This is all well and good—if you’re fattening up for a sumo wrestling match, or if you want to forever lose the ability to appreciate what real food tastes like.
Is it worth it?
Herein lies the problem. The foods these chefs concoct may be delightful to taste, but at what cost? Are our expanding waistlines worth it? Is our health of secondary importance? Should our ability to taste healthy, wholesome foods be sacrificed?
We need to take a step or two back, and realize that that taste alone should not determine what we eat. Nutrition must enter the equation to balance it. Some of the rich-taste may have to be sacrificed for the better good, and not always necessarily so, in order to retain the ability to be able to savour wholesome, nutritious food without the need to complain about it and calling it ‘boring’.
Next I’d like to pick a bone with Instagram. Well, not with Instagram itself, but with the omnipresent food posts.
I have good reasons for that.
Instagram is inundated with millions of posts which depict mouthwatering foods that are generally unhealthy—with some exceptions, of course—conditioning us to believe this is the norm, effectively helping to mould our eating habits. This in and of itself isn’t good. And as a nutritionist, I feel that people have a hard enough time resisting tempting foods in person, and now they have to be reminded what they’re missing out on while on their phones, scrolling through social media posts.
These posts, however, do even more. Pictures are a powerful medium. They can stimulate our appetite, causing us to want to eat what we see in the pics. This doesn’t pose a problem provided you just ate and feel sated, or if you have the willpower and self-discipline to resist. But it can be a snag if you happen to scroll through your Instagram feed and a juicy bbq- and cheese-laden burger happens to confront you on the way back home from a long day at work. More often than not, our desire leads to an executive decision of stopping at a fast food place where we can give in to our temptation.
And again, the more we look at and eat food of this nature, the more we are inclined to find simple, healthy foods uninspiring by comparison.
Wait, Instagram is not all bad
That’s true. It’s not all bad. In recent years, the good side has awakened and the force is with them. The rebel army of nutritionists, dieticians, health and wellness gurus, and healthy home chefs have taken it upon themselves to come to battle against unhealthy grub. These people have taken to Instagram hoping to inspire, educate and inform. Kudos to them. Kudos to us.
“…one of the most common client complaints I get as a nutritionist is that there isn’t enough time to prep and cook meals for the family in today’s busy world.”
You’ve got another thing comin’
But as a nutritionist who deals with working moms and dads, I see another challenge here.
Many of the healthy foodstagram posts often depict exotic, perfectly concocted and masterfully presented foods. They are no doubt beautifully shot, visually-appealing and inspirational. They also receive hundreds or even thousands of likes. It’s hard not to show our appreciation by marking the heart.
But then the practical side of the nutritionist takes over and tempers the fun, asking this question: Are these beautiful photos of healthy foods quick and easy to make with simple ingredients? Can they be quickly spruced up after work, when tired and with hungry kids hovering around? I’d say only sometimes. Maybe even rarely.
You see, one of the most common client complaints I get as a nutritionist is that there isn’t enough time to prep and cook meals for the family in today’s busy world, let alone available time to scour the grocery store looking for kashi, kimchi or kombucha, as instructed by the holistic health practitioner (even though you should).
Unless you happen to have a passion for cooking, it’s difficult to slot this in the already busy schedule. For many, it’s just easier to swing by a take-out place.
What you see is what you eat
A similar thing happens when we watch television commercials that feature food—more often than not, fast food. We feast our eyes on the perfectly-cooked, steaming, succulent food and…we want it.
That’s why commercials work, pure and simple. The problem is the foods shown in the commercial ads are often smeared in sauces and dressings, or submerged and pulled out of some thick, unhealthy and fattening dip, which obscures the taste of the food. And this is nothing to say of the fact that these foods are often processed, pre-made, full of preservatives and fried.
Regular exposure to these foods ads during our favourite shows leads us to believe that we simply need food aids, much like in those commercials. I feel we’ve been conditioned to think that over the years.
Let the lead singer lead
I feel it’s time to get back to the basics and eat real food. That is not to say that we eliminate spices or dressings or sauces. Not at all, in fact.
Food can be accompanied by a sauce or a dressing, but a mild one. You can look at food as the lead singer, the centrepiece. All it needs is a mild enhancer. It needs back up vocals. But instead, the condiments and sauces have often upstaged and muffled the lead, and are all we can taste.
What’s to be done?
First, do what you can to stop eating out so much.
And second, I propose transitioning to eating more simple meals, which are easy to prep and cook at home. Grab a ladle of good time management and few spoonfuls of solid planning, and doing so is not such a tall order after all.
JM Nutrition’s blog has been named one of the Top 100 Nutrition Blogs, Websites and Newsletters to Follow in 2020 by Feedspot.