By choosing packaged foods over fresh ingredients, consumers relinquish control over what they eat, says Gerry Kasten - photo by Martin Dee
UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 6 | Jun. 5, 2008
Nutrition Advice Good Enough to Eat
By Brian Lin
We’re all capable of cooking a delicious meal with fresh and nutritious ingredients in just minutes, but that’s not what the packaged foods industry would have you believe, according to UBC dietetics instructor Gerry Kasten.
“We are told over and over by advertising campaigns that we’re too busy to cook for ourselves, that frozen or packaged meals are fast and convenient,” says Kasten, a Registered Dietitian and Master’s candidate in the Faculty of Land and Food System. “They are also increasingly being claimed to be equally nutritious -- good enough to serve to your family.”
But a home-cooked meal is invariably better for you and those you love, says Kasten, who notes that packaged food will have been cooked at least twice by the time it enters your mouth. “That destroys nutrients and flavour. And there are additives that keep the packaged food looking good and tasting like it ‘should.’ ”
What Kasten calls the “de-skilling” of consumers when it comes to cooking is part of an overall relinquishing of control by consumers over their food choices. “We’ve become accustomed to external influences to tell us what -- and how much -- to eat,” he says. “Then we decide we’re too fat and go on a diet and give up even more control.”
Kasten says people generally know what healthy food is, but lack the know-how to incorporate that knowledge into their lives. To address that, he and co-instructor Joanne Rankin have incorporated “food-based knowledge” in an undergraduate course for third-year Dietetics majors.
“It concerns me when I hear nutritional advice dispensed without food advice to go with it,” says Kasten. “If I tell you to take more iron, that’s not giving you much information. But if I tell you to eat clam chowder with an extra can of clams in it -- clams have almost nine times more iron than beef -- that gives you nutritional advice that’s also delicious.”
A professionally trained chef who’s worked in five-star hotel kitchens, Kasten challenges students to blend raw nutritional knowledge in recipes and prepare them in a kitchen classroom. The course’s manual is an extensive cookbook of everything from low-fat desserts to entrees with specific nutrients for patients or the elderly.
“Dietitians work with a wide range of clients, from individuals seeking better control of their weight to hospitals planning nutritious meals for patients,” says Kasten. “We feel it’s vital that our students can use their expertise to help clients choose everyday grocery items and show them how to prepare them.”
“The number one comment we get from students, many of whom have never cooked in their lifetime, is how easy it was to make seemingly complicated dishes like pumpkin pie or Bouillabase -- and how cheap they are,” says Kasten.
The hands-on experience is building the students’ confidence and whetting their appetite for the joys of cooking and eating, concepts that have nearly been “dieted out” of the public consciousness.
“We as a society have this idea that the value of food lies solely in is its nutrition,” says Kasten. “What that neglects is all of the things that food does for us which contributes to our health that has nothing to do with nutrition.
“Let’s say you enjoy eating ice cream, and it makes you feel happy. I think that feeling good is an important contributor to health so arguably that ice cream is an important contributor to your health, even though nutritionally it might not be the most optimal choice,” says Kasten.
“Eating isn’t just about counting calories. Cooking for yourself and enjoying the fruits of your labour should evoke as much satisfaction as choosing nutritious foods.”