THE BLOG

A Taste for Stealth

10/15/2014 06:49pm ET | Updated December 15, 2014
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Stealth nutrition can work for you or against you. Unfortunately, it has been used against you by the food industry for years.

First, we need a definition. Stealth, of course, refers to actions that are secretive or concealed. The term has been applied to health -- by yours truly, no less -- to refer to small, incremental, almost unnoticeable steps one can take to get there from here. Both of these meanings apply to stealth nutrition, which involves the use of hidden ingredients to change something important about the character of food.

Now, back to the bad news about food industry exploitations. I suspect this story has been told more times than I know about, but I've encountered it at intervals since 2005 at least. In that year, investigative journalists at the Chicago Tribune began a four-part series about the food industry's manipulations of us all. What made the work important, fascinating, and profoundly disturbing is that the inspiration was a large batch of documents secured not from any food company, but from Philip Morris, the tobacco company.

The culminating piece of the series told this story. The journalists had access to files obtained under subpoena by a group of state attorneys general, under terms of a class action lawsuit against the tobacco industry. The journalists found evidence that scientists from Philip Morris, and scientists from Kraft, had been collaborating to study flavor compounds and mixtures in foods -- even using functional MRI scans to assess affects on the appetite center. Tobacco company scientists were interested in flavors that would entice young people to take up smoking. Food industry scientists wanted to know that when they told us, "betcha' can't eat just one!" -- they could take it to the bank.

Variations on the theme of this story have been told many times since, about both food manufacturing, and food service. Among the many excellent works on the topic, I particularly recommend Pandora's Lunchbox by Melanie Warner.

And then there is the definitive work on the topic, Salt, Sugar, Fat, by Pulitzer Prize-winner, Michael Moss. The gist of this important book is reflected in the title of the excerpt used as a New York Times Magazine cover story: "The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food." Just as advertised, Mr. Moss explains how stealthy manipulations of our food supply diminish nutritional quality and maximize the calories we consume before feeling full and satisfied.

Here's an example my wife first pointed out to me. In virtually every supermarket in the U.S. are pasta sauces with -- literally -- more added sugar relative to calories than ice cream toppings sold in the same store. We've compared them directly. Why put all that sugar in pasta sauce, when no one would intentionally pour sugar over spaghetti? Sweet stimulates appetite, and by hiding all that sugar under the spices and salt, more appetite is provoked -- and more eating takes place. That means a new jar of pasta sauce is needed sooner than later -- and someone, presumably, is chuckling about that all the way to the bank. Meanwhile, back at the family dinner, we are succumbing routinely to obesity and diabetes.

Through the lens of NuVal, the nutritional profiling system I helped develop that has scored over 100,000 foods for overall nutritional quality, we have seen just this kind of practice innumerable times, in almost all food categories. NuVal helps to expose such manipulations, since the foods without stealth sugar score much better than those with it. There are better pasta sauces with no added sugar; you just need to know you should be looking for them, and how to find them.

NuVal, other such systems, and food label literacy can help you and your family navigate past the adulterations of packaged foods. That's a good start, but you can take the management of stealth nutrition one step further. You can turn it to your advantage.

To help you do just that, I am delighted to direct you to a new, free resource -- my wife's website, Cuisinicity.com. Catherine's story is told on her site, so I won't belabor it here. Suffice to say she brought to our family kitchen the culinary aptitudes of her native, French upbringing; and the scientific aptitude of a Princeton Ph.D. -- because that's exactly what she is. In neuroscience, no less.

She then used these to blend a love of good food with my extremely fussy nutrition standards -- and raised our five children on food they loved that loved them back every step of the way. Stealthy makeovers, featured at Cuisinicity this week, is one among Catherine's many culinary techniques for making food that is as good for health as it is just plain good.

Others have put this technique to good use as well. If you are not familiar with Missy Chase Lapine, the Sneaky Chef -- by all means, check her out. Her work is terrific. Famously, and somewhat controversially, Jessica Seinfeld staked a claim in this space. Catherine and I collaborated with her briefly before she published her book on the topic.

From my perspective, though, nobody does stealth nutrition better than Catherine. And the Cuisinicity recipes all come with my personal seal of approval, because this is the food my own family eats.

The result of artfully stealthy cuisine is a brilliant infusion of highly nutritious ingredients in some of the places you would least expect to find them. While the food industry puts sugar in foods that aren't even sweet, Cuisinicity puts lentils in foods that are! You may not be able to imagine a genuinely decadent chocolate cake with lentils a major ingredient -- but if not, your imagination and dessert can get a makeover together.

There are three effects of turning stealth nutrition from foe to friend. First, you immediately get to love foods that love you back -- because by its very definition, a stealth approach to nutrition treads artfully around issues of taste and texture. The food all tastes great -- it's just so much better for you, re-engineered to be so from the inside out. One of the ways stealth nutrition makes foods better for you is by making them more satiating, meaning they fill you up on fewer calories. Portion control is built in -- and the results of filling up routinely on fewer calories can be quite stunning.

Second, the more truly wholesome ingredients are blended into ever more wholesome recipes, the more these flavor profiles subtly work over your palate. The net effect is taste bud rehab, causing you -- and your kids! -- to prefer evermore wholesome foods. The process is self-perpetuating.

Third, a transformation of recipes, meals, and dishes can add up to a transformation of your diet. That, in turn, can transform your health, and that of your family, for the better.

I trust you know the aphorism about health, wealth, and wisdom. The standard version places an emphasis on sleep, which does belong on the short list of priorities. For today's purposes, though, we can shift the emphasis to stealth, and adjust the sequence. In a world awash in foods designed to be energy-dense, nutrient-dilute, and hyperpalatable, it is wise to reclaim control over your diet with the application of stealth.

While stealth may not lead directly to wealth, it is worth noting that many of the most nutritious ingredients ideal for stealthy makeovers are very inexpensive. Culinary stealth certainly can lead directly to better health via better nutrition, by improving dishes, meals, and palates -- resulting in a better diet overall.

A taste for stealth can help a whole family love food that loves them back. Along with other resources, Cuisinicity is now available to help your family do just that. I think it would be wise to take advantage of the opportunity.

-fin

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