Devin Ellsworth

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Put Down The Guar Gum: Tips For Cooking Without Your Favorite Chemicals

I see you.  Yeah, you.  You with the shaker of guar gum in one hand, a bottle of maltodextrin in the other.  Put those down for a second and listen up.  Sure they taste great, don’t they?  Who doesn’t like a sodium benzoate spice rub on their entree, or a high fructose corn syrup stir fry sauce?  While these chemicals are the staples of the home cook, I am here standing alone, as many visionaries once have, to posit that there is a better way.

Of course no one really cooks with these chemicals.  Yet major food companies do.  This is something we are starting to figure out as a society, but most people still don’t see an answer.  Working at Trader Joe’s as I do, and in the liberal city in which I work, I get countless complaints about the contents of our products.  “This has too much sodium,” or, “why does this have added sugar?”  “Do you have a low-fat version of this?” or, “why don’t you have this in full-fat form?”   Most of the complaints – no wait – all of the complaints are about products with “value added.”  That is to say, prepared foods of varying degrees.  Be it frozen entrees or marinara sauces, soups or cereals.  The foods that some food scientist in a lab developed from what was once whole ingredients.  Except they love the guar gum.

When I hear these complaints I am consistently left with one thought.  If you don’t want junk in your food, make it yourself. It is very trendy these days to complain about HFCS in food, and to read ingredient lists looking for unpronounceable items.  I myself do it.  However, the vast majority of the products people are upset about are so simple to make from scratch.  And the beauty of making it from scratch is you decide what goes into it!

When I first started cooking on my own, I relied a lot on prepared foods.  I will be the first to admit their convenience.  I always had a box or two of macaroni and cheese handy, or a frozen burrito ready to zap in a jam.  As I have learned more and more how to cook, thanks to Mark Bittman (read his manifesto) and “How To Cook Everything Vegetarian,” I have come to learn just how easy it is to make most of the products from scratch that I once bought out of convenience.  Nowadays, I never venture into the frozen aisle at work, apart from buying frozen fruit for smoothies.  Yet it is by far the most popular aisle for Trader Joe’s (and where we make most of our money I’ll wager, as no product has more “value” added than a prepared entree).  It is incredible the amount of people who clearly rely solely on our frozen meals.  It is also scary.  Most of the meals are so easy to make at home.  And as for soups and sauces, those are so simple to make from scratch, and so much more delicious when you do.

Next time you run out of marinara sauce I challenge you to make your own instead of buying a jar.  Find the whole ingredients, with nothing added.  Those plum tomatoes, that handful of basil, the garlic to roast.  You control the salt in your sauce.  You refrain from reaching for the guar gum.  It is all natural.  And delicious.  Make a big enough batch (and get some mason jars) and you can keep it for months.  Freeze some of it and have it for later.  And feel the sense of pride for creating something for yourself that you once passed off onto food scientists in a lab.

Three years ago, my New Year’s Resolution was to learn how to cook.  It all started with Mr. Bittman’s book and a spark of an interest.  Three years ago I ate a ton of macaroni and pizza rolls.  Today I buy mostly produce and other whole ingredients, and make as much from scratch as possible.  I never buy sauces or salsas.  I have no use for the frozen entrees.  But I still have work to do.  However, this year, my resolution for everyone, is that we all learn how to cook.  Buying whole ingredients, mostly produce, connects you to your food in a way that highly processed food that hides behind a generic label cannot.  When we are connected to our food, we care about it.  When we care, we find better choices for ourselves and for the planet.  So, next time you run out of Prego, consider the impact of your options, and I hope you will find those bright red tomatoes in the produce section instead of the red jars in the middle of the store.  That small change makes such a big difference.


Leave a Comment!

Great points, Devin, we all should cook more. On a related matter, I found a cool app for my Android phone, called Animal Free, which gives a long list of food additives, divided into animal derived and vegan, and a short description of how each one is made and what it is often found in.

Deb, you make a good point about cost savings as well. While those processed goods may seem cheap, it is almost always going to be cheaper to make it yourself. There is “value” added in those canned and boxed goods, and you pay for it.

Julie, there are certainly good alternatives out there as well. Not to plug my own store too much, but several of Trader Joe’s sauces actually don’t have any junk added. The biggest problems people have with them is the sodium, but honestly, I have heard and believe it to be true that you can really eat all the sodium you want (within reason) as long as you drink enough water to allow your body to process it.

Kristie, those sound delicious! You raise a good point about the healthfulness of cooked versus raw veggies. I think I will have to post on that, since “raw vegan” is such a fad these days. I am actually 100% against that diet, but it is interesting nonetheless, and they raise good questions. But cooked food is just so delicious, I don’t think the health benefits are worth it for starters. Anyway, keep cooking!

Since I went vegetarian I’ve had to make my own animal-free options in my house, and I’ve found that I actually love cooking! I love making homemade pizza… I don’t bother blending to make my sauce, I try to keep the veggies as less-cooked as possible to get the most benefit from them, so I bake the multigrain crust separate for 10 minutes, and then throw on a tossed bowl of (all organic) diced tomatoes, garlic, basil, kalamata olives and olive oil just long enough to get them warm. Delicious!

For those of us who don’t have the time or patience to cook (for me it’s primarily the latter), Amy’s prepared foods are probably the next best option. They are supposedly made with all natural ingredients, and most soups come in low sodium versions. Their tomato soup = perfection — that’s always my backup lunch or din option.

The other benefit is that it’s cheaper to make your own. I have always made my own biscuits and muffins, and wouldn’t think of buying those tubes of biscuits, nor would I pick up a 6-pack of muffins in the bakery dept. They’re easy to make and WAY cheaper! I also always make my own pie crust. Really, it’s not hard at all, takes maybe 5 more minutes than unrolling a frozen one, and again–cheaper by far.