Friday, June 24, 2011

The Vital Importance of Flavor

 As a cook, I'm expected to delight the palate first, and deliver healthy nutrition second. This has presented a conflict of interests at times, since most people would rather have their food be delicious than particularly healthful. 

Because human nature is to want it all, my job as a private chef has very often entailed adapting to my employers' notions of an ideal diet for weight loss and radiant health, while simultaneously gratifying their palates. A tall order, for sure, but accomplishing this has been the secret of my success.
I've always maintained that in order for food to be truly healthy, it must pass the first three tests: look good, smell good and taste good. I haven’t been pushing a hedonist agenda; this is simply common sense. Follow me on this. There are two basic schools of thought:
             1) There is a wise and kind Creator, and we have been given the senses for a reason, to assist us in fulfilling our purpose in being alive. This purpose (in case you didn't already know) is joy. I'm not making this up—you can verify it for yourself. Everything we do, we do in order to secure the greatest good for ourselves, in order to eventually attain the highest possible state of bliss. The passion driving our all endeavors has this one end, period.
            So, on this premise, and understanding our nature, our senses provide both the avenue to experience physical pleasure (one sort of joy) and the means to feel our way through the trial-and-error jungle to optimum health, including physical health. Before we eat something, we look to see if it's appealing. Perhaps even before seeing the food, we smell it, and find it either appetizing or repellent. If the food passes both of these joy-tests, we may proceed to taste it. By this time, we're fairly committed, both in our mind (yum, this is good) and our body (digestive juices flowing). If everything checks out, we go ahead and eat, enjoying every bite and—very important—digesting well

2) There was no Creator; the universe simply and randomly big-banged into existence for no particular reason, after which the fundamental forces of nature began to drive all living organisms to continuously evolve and produce increasingly effective forms. Because evolution has not stopped, but is currently under way, what we do as humans is to more and more efficiently survive, prosper and propagate. 
In this view, our taste buds and olfactory senses serve only to indicate—via pleasure—which foods are good to eat, and to encourage us to eat, in much the same way that sexual pleasure encourages us to procreate. In other words, there is no kindness inherent to our design, but merely a set of functions, an evolutionary system that assures the survival of the species by gratifying the senses as a reward for effective choices.     
There is a third possibility also, which is that a wise and kind Creator is not separate from the universe we live in, but is in fact the stuff of which the universe is made, as well as the engine that drives it, intimately involved in the laws of physics, in the motion and evolution of all matter, living and inanimate.

I don’t know which theory is easiest to swallow, but I rather favor the third, which is by far the most mind-blowing, because wisdom and kindness do exist, they had to come from somewhere, and they're way too cool to be a human invention. However, it doesn’t really matter which belief system we may subscribe to, because however we got here, and whatever has made us the way we are, we definitely favor pleasure. We are set up by both form and function to seek the optimum. In terms of food, this means that in addition to an enjoyable eating experience, we also want to feel good after we eat, and to benefit in the long term from our food choices.

I’ve never liked the term “health food,” which I believe is marketing code for “stuff that tastes pretty awful, but is supposed to be good for you, although there’s scant evidence that suffering through it will benefit you at all.” To me, if it doesn’t taste good, it isn’t food; if it isn’t food, it can’t be a healthy thing to eat. 

Unfortunately, the reverse isn’t always true. In this epoch of our evolution, if something tastes good, there is no guarantee it’s even food, let alone healthy. We have food science and the industrial revolution to thank for that—as well as for the often misleading, weirdly redundant term “health food.”

Let’s face it, most of us eat because we’re hungry, and we prefer food that tastes good because it’s more fun to eat than food that doesn’t. Health is almost always an afterthought, if we think about it at all.  But we have taste buds and a highly refined olfactory sense for good reason. Two reasons, actually: one, to help us identify what’s good to eat (and in the old days to help us track it down and kill it), and two, so we can enjoy eating it.

Sadly, we’ve become disconnected from the hunting and gathering of our food, so we rely heavily on corporations to do all this for us. And we don’t pay them only for that. We also pay them for processing our food—for the “value added” that distinguishes one corporation’s product from another’s. This wouldn’t be a problem, especially considering the great convenience it affords us, if it weren’t for what it costs us, the loss—both in nutrients and genuine flavor—which is the unspoken “value subtracted” associated with processed food.
Food science has enabled modern food producers to use artificial flavors, fillers, and various techniques, to create the illusion of something good to eat—what we’ve evolved to recognize as good to eat—and apply it in the design of their vaguely foodlike products. You can’t really blame them on one level--the low level of financial success—they’re just doing their best to generate a highly addictive, expendable product from the cheapest ingredients possible. On every other level, however, they are the mortal enemies of health, decency, and civilization itself. Sounds pretty awful, perhaps hyperbolic, but it’s true.         

I submit that as human beings we need to wake up, recognize that we’re being sold fake food, with manufactured flavors, and to choose real food, with naturally occurring flavors.

It would be too much to ask of anyone to resist the addiction to unhealthful food while maintaining the habit of eating it. We need to break the habit, stop indulging in unnatural food, and demand natural, fresh, whole, organic food. We need to support genuine farmers who grow according to the systems and biodiversity of nature, because they are our sole source of real food.

Flavor is paramount in our survival, because it both guides us in our food choices, and rewards our effort with pleasure, without which we would surely lose interest. But this “wise-and-kind-Creator-given” talent of selecting healthful foods based on the joy we get from them only works when we place natural food before it. Only then can this uncanny ability truly compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges, and select the best for us.

Imitations can fool our senses, trick our brain, and addict us to substances that do us harm even as we get pleasure from eating them. And the supermarket aisles are jammed with bar-coded items far removed from nature, made with deceptive, degraded materials.  Consuming many of these products, especially consuming them exclusively, is demonstrably harmful to human health, environmental health, and the future of food itself. 

This is crucial information for us to have, because only when we understand that we’re being deceived in ways that directly harm us, can we begin to make conscious choices that benefit us.


  1. Thank you share with us your experience, I like the post, because it has taught me a lot. Thank you to let me continuous learning everyday.

  2. Hey Cuz!

    I really enjoyed the article - right on! Looking forward to the next one. Thanks for keeping me on your list.

  3. Beautifully put, as usual, Alan. I can't even remember when I made something from a package or opened a can, so I agree to much with what you say!! I truly enjoy the creating delicious food for my friends and family from natural ingredients. I enjoy reading every one of your blogs and look forward to the next one. You are a wise and creative (to put it so mildly) person and deserve all the best. I hope someone is paying you alot of money for your writing. Is there a book in the works? There should be! You are truly blessed with a genious mind.