Friday, January 20, 2012

Paula Deen and Real Food

After my initial post about Paula Deen, I read this post from Civil Eats.

In my first post, I quoted Renee from Womanist Musings as saying this:
How is what Deen doing any more unconscionable than any fast food corporation, or any company that makes pre packaged foods? How many deceptive labels have you read over the years of so called healthy products?  I'll say one thing, Deen's food may not be healthy, but at least you can pronounce every single ingredient in it, and that is far more than I can say for the many of the items on todays grocery store shelves.  Obviously, I am not advocating that one consume food loaded in butter and to deep fry mac n cheese, but I do have a problem with a single woman being set up to look like the great Satan so that others can sit in judgement of her, when several corporations are guilty of so much more.   
Which is an interesting point, and one I am personally interested in as I've been trying to cut overly-processed foods from my diet.

The Civil Eats post, however, stated pretty much the exact opposite about Deen's meals:
The issue that mainstream media has largely overlooked is that Deen uses the processed, packaged versions of these foods, which are full of chemicals, additives and trans-fats. Actual home cooking would require whipping these foods up herself in her kitchen using real ingredients. And that is the real story behind Deen’s diabetes diagnosis: Her health problems are largely due to her reliance on packaged, processed foods that are the foundation for many of her recipes. 
Even though her cooking show is called Paula’s Home Cooking, there’s a lot going on in her kitchen that is as far removed from home cooking as you can get. Many of her recipes include “ingredients” like Krispy Kreme doughnuts, biscuit mixes, cans of mushroom soup, and sour-cream-and-onion flavored potato chips. This is processed food cooking, not home cooking.
So, who's right? Does, as Renee suggests, Deen's real food cooking somehow set her apart from the real culprits of fast food and packaged goods? Or does Deen's food, as Civil Eats charges, hide a series of processed, chemically-altered ingredients behind the mask of home cooking?

I took to Deen's website to find out. My method was to go to the recipes section and pick the fourth meal listed in each of the following sections: Appetizers,  Main Courses, Desserts, and Side Dishes. Here's the ingredient list for each one:

Appetizer: Tomatoes Stuffed with Chicken Salad
6   large tomatoes 2 cup chicken, cooked and cubed 1/2 cup minced red bell pepper 1/2 cup corn, drained 1 1/2 tablespoon minced red onion 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice 1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian flat leaf parsley 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard 1 tablespoon mayonnaise 1 teaspoon ground black pepper 1/2 teaspoon salt Leaf lettuce or spinach leaves

Okay, so most of that is pretty good. The two bolded items are probably questionable. As Civil Eats notes, pre-prepared condiments like mayonnaise are often loaded with ingredients that aren't actually food. 

Of course, Deen doesn't specify what kind of condiments to use, but since her charge against Anthony Bourdain's past criticisms was that she makes food for everyday people, I'm going to assume it's not something too fancy. So let's look at Kraft Mayo. The ingredients:
Soybean oil, water, eggs, vinegar, contains less than 2% of egg yolks, lemon juice concentrate, salt, sugar, dried onions, dried garlic, paprika, natural flavor, calcium disodium edta
I've bolded the ingredients that concern me, calcium disodium edta because that's not any food I recognize and soybean oil because soy has become so prevalent in American diets, it frequently comes from genetically modified crops, and it has been linked to some health problems, including infertility. 

Main Course: Wayne's Beef Macaroni and Cheese

1 teaspoon each dried basil, cumin, and dried oregano Salt and pepper 3 cup canned crushed tomatoes2 lb lean ground beef 1 tablespoon chopped garlic 2 cup chopped onion 2 cup chopped green bell pepper 2 tablespoon vegetable oil 1 lb box elbow macaroni 2-3 cup grated cheddar cheese 
Okay, so all of the ingredients on this list are pronounceable, but what about the ingredients on the lists of these pre-packaged items? As the Veggie Queen points out, a common pasta brand like Barilla often has a lot of hidden, very processed ingredients that the consumer might not be thinking about and many brands of cheese (including Kraft) contain a "coagulating enzyme derived from either beef or swine."

Desserts: Work-a-holic's Hot Chocolate

Vanilla Custard:
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 1/2 cups milk, divided
1/2 cup sugar
2   large egg yolks
1   vanilla bean, split lengthwise, or 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Hot Chocolate:
7 ounces (2 chocolate bars) semisweet chocolate, chopped 
1 cup milk, boiled
The ingredients in that chocolate bar?
Sugar, chocolate, cocoa butter, milk fat, soy lecithin, vanillin, artificial flavor, PGPR, emulsifier, milk

PGPR, by the way, stands for ployglycerol polyricinoleate and is used as a cost-reducing substance when making chocolate. My spell check didn't even recognize those as words, so I'm definitely not going to be recognizing it as a real food.

Side Dishes: Turkey/Chicken Stuffing
1 loaf of fresh white bread (3 for a turkey)1 small celery bunch diced (2 with turkey)1 large onion diced (3 for turkey)2 large eggs (up to 8 for turkey)1 large pinch of salt¼ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper½ pound unsalted butter (add ½ pound for turkey)¼ to ½ cup fresh turkey stock (optional)
This recipe also includes pre-packaged ingredients. Have you checked the list of ingredients in a standard loaf of bread. Maybe you even went with the "healthier" option and used wheat instead of white. Here's what you'd be getting:
Whole wheat flour, water, wheat gluten, high fructose corn syrup, contains 2% of less of: soybean oil, salt, molasses, yeast, mono and diglycerides, exthoxylated mono and diglycerides, dough conditioners (sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium iodate, calcium dioxide), datem, calcium sulfate, vinegar, yeast nutrient (ammonium sulfate), extracts of malted barley and corn, dicalcium phosphate, diammonium phosphate, calcium propionate  
So, who was right? Well, I agree that many of Deen's recipes appear to be using real foods if you just glance at the ingredient list, but considering that so many of her ingredients are measured in "cans" and "boxes," that's not telling the whole story. As Civil Eats points out, Deen is actually promoting a lot of processed foods. 


  1. Woah! I think you're totally over-thinking this now! And I think the MOST interesting thing here is that Civil Eats accuses Paula Deen of cooking with canned soup and potato chips, and yet when you selected four recipes at random the worst you found was mayonnaise and chocolate bars. You need to apply some sort of "who would make this at home" test. 100% of people use tinned tomatoes - even gourmet chefs. I don't think gourmet chefs make their own mustard either, and only the MOST gourmet would make their own mayo or chocolate. Only 1% of people would make their own butter or cheese, and only 4% their own pasta, maybe 30% their own stock or bread? This post totally puts me on Paula's side - she is catering to real people, with real lifestyles and incomes, and I don't think any of these recipes are promoting poor eating.

  2. Hmm. That's true. The Civil Eats post did make it sound like she was pulling a ton of pre-packaged stuff from the shelves, and a lot of the ingredients on her list are whole foods--definitely more than a recipe you would find on a website sponsored by Kraft or Betty Crocker, which includes a lot of processed/packaged stuff.

    I've been reading so much stuff about processed food lately that I'm probably drowning in it a little, and that might be clouding my judgment. But you're right--a lot of the ingredients (especially in things like bread or chocolate) are a problem with our general food culture, and not Paula Deen in particular.

    I did pull these completely at random, so I don't know if there are other recipes Civil Eats is talking about that have more processed stuff.

  3. I'm pretty sure that "coagulating enzyme derived from either beef or swine" is rennet, which is taken from the animal's stomach lining and has been used in cheese making since cheese was first made. This is an important ingredient to look out for if you're veg*n and avoiding animal products.