Camping Indulgence; Culinary Exploration

Bacon caramel s’mores. For breakfast. Yup.

While camping this past week, there were, of course, the necessary staples of marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate. Not Hershey’s chocolate, however- which has had a corner hold on the American s’more market for years- but Reese’s peanut butter cups. These amenities were supplied by my camping mates, and I hesitated only slightly (passing up the Oreos as a graham cracker replacement) before roasting myself a beautiful golden ‘mallow and placing it on a mess of crunchy cracker and peanut chocolate candy. My indulgence left no guilt, but instead triggered my curiosity and desire to explore this camping tradition further.

Since we were road tripping and camping for over a week, we made grocery store stops frequently along the way to replenish perishable food items of necessity. My s’more curiosity led me to the chocolate and candy aisle where I found myself purchasing Ghirardelli caramel chocolate squares to try out on another night’s indulgence. This camping tradition just got serious.

The true brilliance did not come, however, until a few mornings later. There was bacon being made; another culinary indulgence. (Might I add that this particular bacon came from the Redmond Smoke House, and was house cured by Ben Moore; my compliments go out to him.) I did not have a s’more the night before and wanted to add something more to my bacon that was not yogurt and granola. Then it came to me… bacon caramel s’mores for breakfast! Genius. Hence, a traditional camping indulgence became an exciting culinary exploration.

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It was delicious. Sweet, crunchy, chewy, salty and fatty. All the things we (I say as an aggregate) love in our food.

It did get me to thinking, though… why did I not feel any guilt? I am a dietitian. A label reader. An ingredient scrutinizer. Why did I find this okay? Here is my breakdown.

The word “indulgence” speaks a lot. I do not often consume food that I do not find nutritionally sound, or that could harm my health. And I do believe in the moderation theory. I suppose that makes me a modern food realist. Therefore, I do not feel that my choice to indulge in a camping tradition such as the s’more (of which, for full disclosure, I had three over the course of the week) is going to jeopardize my health or trump my majority diet. The short-term concern would be: can my digestive system handle the shock of a bacon caramel s’more? I am pleasantly surprised and happy to report that it did just fine through my gastrointestinal tract (for the most part). This aside, I still have the bigger picture to consider. By purchasing or consuming the food items above I have supported what I believe is a poorly run, highly unhealthy and extremely elusive food system.

Let me explain via a look at the consumed food item ingredients.

Honey Maid Honey Graham: unbleached enriched flour (fortified), graham flour, sugar, soybean oil, honey, leavening, salt, soy lecithin, artificial flavor.

Ghirardelli Caramel Milk Chocolate Square: sugar, cocoa butter, milk powder, corn syrup, sweetened condensed milk, unsweetened chocolate, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, partially hydrogenated coconut oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, water, butter, vanilla, sorbitol, natural flavors, artificial flavors, salt, disodium phosphate, potassium sorbate, soy lecithin.

Jet Puffed Marshmallows, Kraft “America’s Favorite”: corn syrup, sugar, dextrose, modified corn starch, water, gelatin, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, artificial flavors, artificial colors (Blue 1)

Bacon: As already stated, this particular bacon was local, humanely raised and killed and then butchered and cured by Ben Moore, owner of the Redmond Smokehouse. (Thank goodness for that or this article could go on for days if I were to engage in a further discussion regarding the US meat market.)

Most of these ingredients have no business in my s’more (save the bacon).

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Nutritionally speaking, the most pronounced red flags are the added sugars and oils. Well duh, you may say, you are eating marshmallows and chocolate. A marshmallow is sugar, yes, we know that, but the first four ingredients are four different forms of sugar. Why four different forms? There are also three different forms of sugar in the chocolate squares and the crackers have two. Please see my past article(s) on sugar, linked here, for insight on why this is worth mentioning.

As for the oils, there is soybean oil, partially hydrogenated soybean, cottonseed, coconut and vegetable oils in the crackers and chocolate. Hydrogenation was a brilliant technological advancement for the food industry, and supposedly our health, as it took the place of the dreaded saturated fats in our food products. That is until we discovered that messing with nature actually made our health worse. Hydrogenated oil is longhand for trans fats; nothing good can come from having this fat in your diet.

There is also the fact that all these ingredients (again, save the bacon) have artificial flavoring, colorings, or both. Why does a WHITE marshmallow need blue dye? To counterbalance the colors of the various sugars or the artificial flavorings? And why artificially flavor sugar anyway? It’s sugar and it should taste like sugar.

All of these ingredients can be argued to serve a purpose- but it’s a purpose that can be served instead by real food and not a processed replication. Take the tetrasodium pyrophosphate and soy lecithins, for example. These are emulsifiers, which means they help to mix fats and water-soluble ingredients together so they are smooth and will not separate (the way soap works to get dirt and oils off your skin when you wash). Salad dressing will separate into oil and water without an emulsifying agent added to keep it a uniform solution without stirring. The more common whole food emulsifier is the egg yolk.

The use of partially hydrogenated oils is another example of a processed replication of real food. We need fat in many products for taste, texture and form. We cannot use straight liquid oils because they would not hold the food products together well, especially with heat; their shelf life would be the biggest threat, as liquid oils go rancid fairly quickly compared to solid fats. So we hydrogenate the liquid oils (add hydrogens to them at very high heat) to make them act solid- a timely process with negative health consequences. Heaven forbid we use a naturally solid fat that is less susceptible to oxidation, like plain coconut oil or butter. We could make a similar example out of sweeteners: sugar versus all of its derivatives.

Ironically, the manipulated forms of simple ingredients are in most cases cheaper than the whole foods they replace. This was not originally the case; however high demand for sweet, fatty, sugary foods has driven up the demand for products that contain these. The food industry has responded by producing such products as efficiently as they can to make the most money. That’s business. Supply and demand drives the food economy, lending a large helping hand to the cheap price of these ubiquitous ingredients.

Some factors that come into play to determine what goes into a food item are: subsidies on agricultural commodities (like corn and soybeans); the availability and consistency of an ingredient to meet high demand for production; and the fact that some ingredients help preserve the product’s longevity, taste, and texture profile. The manufacturer does what is necessary to make more, charge less, and ultimately generate a higher profit- potentially at the cost of your health, if not the cost of a logical, sustainable food system.

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There were 1,480 new chocolate products released onto the market in the United States in 2010. Hershey’s held 31.1% of confectionary market sales in the US in 2013 (Ghirardelli/Lindt held 2.6%). Cracker sales in the United States went up 6.7% in 2012, with sales predicted at $6.5 billion in 2015.

The more we purchase and consume processed food products, the more are made. And all of these products have a similar ingredient profile; added sweeteners, fats, salts and cheap additives make them pleasurable for you and cheaper for manufacturers.

The food system at large is running because we demand it. We can influence what is available and affordable to eat by our actions.

What drives your daily food decisions? Health, appetite, price? Regardless of what it is, by all means indulge and explore, as food should be enjoyed and played with, but do keep the bigger picture in mind.

References:

Statista: Consumer Goods and FMCG, Food and Nutrition. http://www.statista.com/markets/415/topic/468/food-nutrition/

U.S. Food Policy: a public interest perspective. usfoodpolicy.blogspot.com