Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Take, For Example, Wheat Gluten

A vegetarian friend recently asked me a question about Morningstar Farms vegetable patties. Following is his question, and my reply.



Have you heard of the company Morningstar Farms? They make vegetarian products that taste like chicken, burgers, etc. (Really they're poor imitations, but ignoring that they mimic poorly, I think they taste really good anyway). I was wondering if you had an opinion on it. I noticed they use a whole crapload of ingredients to make the stuff, and I assume [those are] the ingredients to make it taste like hamburger/chicken/whatever and to give it its texture. Could that affect the nutritional value of the food?


Yes, I do have an opinion. I'll try to sum it up in as few words as possible. Those few words are:

I believe the healthiest human diet consists of foods as close to their natural state and as minimally processed as possible. The greater the distance our food from its natural state, the less nutritional value it has.

The rest of this email just defends that statement.

Now, although Morningstar Farms Garden Veggie Patties appear to be chock full of the esteemed vegetables and grains touted by just about every person with nutritional bent (or not), their degree of processing puts them in a category of, well, filler ... something you might eat once in a while to pack in the calories, but not the makings of a good day-to-day food regimen.

Let's look at one of these foods' primary ingredients: wheat gluten. You start with a highly nutritious wheat berry (grain), full of vitamins and minerals and fiber and other phytochemicals some of which we still haven't identified. ("That is to say, there are things that we now know that we don't know but there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know." - Donald Rumsfeld). You grind it under heat and pressure to make flour. You filter out the bran and germ leaving a pile of powder to which you add (toxic) chlorine or bromine as whiteners. The remaining product is mostly starch. This is the flour most of us use for baking. It has so many nutrients removed, e.g. thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, iron, vitamin E, fiber, etc. that the US government requires manufacturers to enrich it, that is, put back some of what was taken out. You mix this flour with water, then rinse and rinse it until most of the starch is removed and you are left with a greyish rubbery proteinaceous product, gluten. Mmmm, boy. I don't know what this product has going to recommend it. Even its protein is difficult for many humans to digest. Speaking of its protein, wheat gluten is deficient in many of the specific amino acids considered essential (lysine, methionine, valine) and fails to constitute what dietitians refer to as "complete protein" ... the sort you find in meat. So, if you're looking to this as a substitute for meat, it doesn't cut it. And speaking of meat, these burgers, as do many of their ilk, contain milk and egg derivatives, two food groupings often eliminated in vegetable-based diets.

You get the picture. I would guess that all of the vegetables in these patties start out in a dehydrated state so as not to introduce undesirable microorganisms (bacteria or molds). You can imagine this would eliminate most water-soluble vitamins, the B's, C, and lots of antioxidants and other phytochemicals. Residual oils from brown rice or other grains, and added oils, are surely undergoing a process of rancidity but are effectively covered up with a profuse array of spices, extracts, flavorings, salt, etc.

It is my opinion that the cells of a human trying to subsist on these types of foods will fail to thrive, and may deteriorate prematurely.

The alternative to Morningstar Farms Garden Veggie Patties is, as the significant man in my life says, "A Big Salad". We discussed your question and he talked about how he ate when he lived alone, how difficult it was eating healthfully, how much time and planning it required, and how the roasting of a Big Chicken, the tossing of a Big Salad, and the uncorking of a Big Red constituted eating well for him. I would say he didn't do too poorly.

(He just added: "The most important thing about the Big Salad is the dressing!" He said you need to develop a good combination of good (olive) oil, good vinegar ("Not that white crap."), and good other stuff like good mustard and good garlic, etc. so that the resulting dressing is good, good enough so that eating lots of it just makes you feel even more good.)

(He also just added that when he was living alone he had such a buddy relationship with Pizza Palace that the guy behind the counter greeted him by his first name.)