Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es’ Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are…
Anthelème Brillat-Savarin, 1826
A race to the bottom
This article is based on the presentation I gave at the 2019 Real Food Gathering, where I had been asked to provide an overview of foods once common in the traditional western diet. The content, which reflects my experience as a nutrition and lifestyle health coach and chef, is based on the extensive research I carried out in order to write my book Once Upon a Cook – Food Wisdom, Better Living: Reclaim your kitchen. In the book I examine each category of the traditional foods highlighted in this article in detail over the course of 14 chapters, two appendices and citing over 500 references.
As a nutrition and lifestyle health expert, coach and a nutritional chef, I care deeply that the traditional, timehonoured foods, the powerful medicine that kept generations before us fit and free of chronic disease, are no longer on our tables. In the UK, perhaps largely because of our increased consumption of ultra processed foods, we are now leading a global race to the bottom of international league tables for health and disease. This article expresses my belief that the
crisis in healthcare won’t be solved by money, but only by going back to real, nutrient-dense food.
If we are to halt the present nutritional race to the bottom, the timehonoured, traditional foods our grandparents (and theirs) enjoyed must find their way back on to our dining tables. For instance the sorts of bone broth ‘grannies’ in diverse cultures around the world have been making for generations. The basis of
a Polish granny’s great chicken soup ‘rosol z kury’ would have been a slow-cooked chicken broth. If she was Jewish she would have served up ‘goldene yoich’. Her Italian counterpart cooked ‘fedelini in brodo’ and in Romania ‘ciorba de pui’. In Mexico they spice theirs up in ‘zopa di fideros’, while Peruvians enjoy a ‘caldo de gallina’. Traditional Chinese medicine has long prized healing ‘congee’ – a well cooked rice-based porridge – which could be made with a chicken feet stock. In India various versions of ‘kitchari’ (a well-cooked broth of rice, mung beans, vegetables and spices often on a meat/ bone-based stock) have been prescribed to countless generations for restoring a weak digestion. All over the world, foods like these are part and parcel of timehonoured healing traditions.
Eggs – the humble egg – organic, genuinely freerange or pasture-fed – is an all-round superfood with
proteins, fats, vitamins A, B, D, E and K and other key micronutrients. Our grandparents’ encouragement to
Go to work on an egg!’ was sound advice.
Seafood – although oily fish like salmon have been very much in vogue, the deep nutrition in the humble sardine, white fish and seafood such as mussels, crab and oysters that granny enjoyed are once again coming into their own.
Dairy – dairy and its products have been prized throughout history and were widely used as a medicine before industrialised, pasteurised dairy products came along. We are witnessing a renaissance of organic, nonhomogenised milk; grass-fed, free-range milk; full-fat raw milk from certified producers; full-fat and raw cheeses, supporting our gut health and immune system function. Raw dairy is rich in fat-soluble vitamins A, K and E – 50% more than in pasteurised – and in vitamin C which is not present at all in pasteurised dairy products.
Bone broths – straight out of granny’s kitchen come bone broths and stocks. Chicken and beef bone broths and stocks from pasture-fed animals are a nutritional powerhouse. Incredibly healing for the digestive tract, broths aid liver detoxification and support the immune system and heart health. Among many other nutrients, bone broths contain a magical ingredient: gelatin…
Gelatin – is not just for jelly! Gelatin is a good source of protein, containing important amino acids not found in lean muscle meat. It supports skin, hair and nail growth; is good for joints and can help joint recovery; can help tighten loose skin and improve digestion since it naturally binds to water; and helps food move more easily though the digestive tract.
Gelatin is the ultimate ‘beauty’ food, as it’s not only rumoured to help improve cellulite but is a great source of dietary collagen. (Forget collagen creams and make broth instead!)
Bone-in and ‘slow-cook’ cuts from grass-fed animals – back in the day, lean meat was cast aside in favour of what we now call ‘cheap’ cuts. But very lean meat is tough on our digestion and lacks important nutrients like gelatin. Granny’s slow-cooked casseroles and braises make use of old-fashioned cheaper cuts on the bone, with rich connective tissue that melds down its precious gelatin into the gravy, greatly helping digestion.
Organ meats – chicken liver pâté with bacon, pâté de campagne, pork and herb terrine, meatloaf, steak and kidney casserole – all delicious, nutritious organ foods. All liver is beneficial, especially liver from pasture-fed animals; good for all vitamins and packed with minerals. Beef liver, although strong in taste, is particularly nutritious. Thankfully, ‘nose-to-tail’ eating trends are encouraging more of us to enjoy these organ meats.
Cultured and fermented foods – every civilisation throughout history has understood the power of cultured dairy: home-made yoghurts, labneh, raw-milk kefir, cultured butter and fermented vegetables such as kimchi, sauerkraut, carrots. These foods are incredibly efficient chelators (detoxifiers) and contain more nutrients than before fermentation.
Grains – organically-grown wheat, spelt, oats, barley, cornmeal, rice and grain-based products like flour and cereals, can play a part in a varied, nutrient-dense diet. But they are problematic for our digestive systems. Grains and their products are complex carbohydrates which release their energy slowly, but they need to be well broken down into simpler sugars in our digestive tract before they can enter the blood stream. Granny’s grains were prepared by traditional, time honoured methods – like soaking, sprouting or fermentation, for better digestion and to avoid potential mineral deficiencies.
cereals, can play a part in a varied, nutrient-dense diet. But they are problematic for our digestive systems. Grains and their products are complex carbohydrates which release their energy slowly, but they need to be well broken down into simpler sugars in our digestive tract before they can enter the blood stream. Granny’s grains were prepared by traditional, time-honoured methods – like soaking, sprouting or fermentation, for better digestion and to avoid potential mineral deficiencies.
Colourful roots, shoots, tubers and squashes –
these starchy carbs ultimately get broken down to glucose in the digestive system to deliver energy efficiently to our
cells. Although starchy carbs have become demonised lately, for many of us these undervalued, below-theground vegetables – carrots, beetroot, parsnips, swedes, celeriac, squashes and potatoes – are much easier to digest (and therefore can meet our energy needs) than
the fibrous and very difficult to digest leafy greens that we obsessively whizz into those healthy green smoothies every morning.
Leafy green and sulphur-rich vegetables – we eat
first with our eyes, so green vegetables are an appealing addition to any meal. Organically-grown kale, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and sulphur-rich onions and garlic all graced granny’s larder. They supply much-needed fibre in our diet, but they can be a problem for many of us if eaten to excess, and granny knew that they need to be cooked well – and served with
butter or olive oil – to support digestion and nutrient
Fruit – evolutionarily, we’re hard-wired for sweet foods. For our ancestors, colourful, ripe fruit was an indicator for, and important source of, vitamins. Although modern fruit has been hybridised to be sweeter than the sharper fruits our ancestors enjoyed, it still plays an important part in a traditional, nutrient-dense diet. Granny knew that eating whole fruit rich in fibre slows down the absorption of the fruit sugars. A word about carbohydrates – grains and their products, starchy and green vegetables and fruits are all carbohydrates and ultimately are all…sugars. There’s no denying that as a food group, carbohydrates have become controversial… and whether we even need to eat carbs at all is currently at the centre of a huge nutritional debate.
Despite the current backlash, these dietary carbohydrates provide our bodies with energy to use and to store for
fuelling our cells. They provide structure, feed beneficial gut bacteria and bulk out our stools, as well as supporting
our immune, digestive and cardiovascular systems.
But excess consumption of highly refined and processed carbohydrates has skewed a proper dietary balance of other macronutrients – proteins and fats, for example spawning ‘carb-phobia’ (fast replacing fatphobia) and demonising them as the new dietary demon on the block. All carbohydrates break down into sugars and there is no doubt that the developed world now consumes horrifying amounts of excess and highly refined isolated, added and synthetic sugars all hidden in ultra-processed foods. But natural, simple sugars in the form of honey, maple syrup, molasses, and fresh, ripe fruits had an honest place in granny’s larder, supporting a wellbalanced, metabolically-positive diet.
Fat – is our healthy friend, but for decades, fat-phobia has ruled the day. Thankfully, both forgotten and emerging science is now proving what granny always knew: saturated fats like coconut oil and animal fats like butter and cream (grass-fed, raw if possible) or beef tallow (from pastured and grass-fed and finished animals), are all high in fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E. Mainly monounsaturated fats like lard (from pastured pigs), avocado oil and extra virgin olive oil are highly beneficial too. These healthful fats need to be back on the table.
Salt – is most definitely the victim of misplaced blame and takes the rap for a variety of serious health conditions. However, salt plays a complex role in the body and we need it to keep our metabolism high and manage our body’s stress response – anything that chronically stresses our system will lead to a health issue. But not all salt is created equal. We need to understand the difference between healthful, unrefined salts like Maldon or Cornish sea salt or Himalayan salt and the free-flowing, refined, industrial-grade salt that appears on our tables and in processed foods. It’s worth remembering that Mother Nature has given us a taste for salt and every chef worth their salt knows that what separates good food from great food is salt!
Not in granny’s larder
Granny would have shuddered at the prospect of ultraprocessed and convenience foods, full of excessive and carefully hidden amounts of sugar, far more than we would ever use in our own kitchen. Although we tend to think that ‘added’ sugar is only found in desserts, cakes, biscuits and other sweet treats, it’s widely found in savoury processed foods, such as bread, pasta and pasta sauce. To make matters worse, many foods promoted as ‘natural’ or ‘healthy’ are laden with these added sugars. The food industry uses a dizzying array of names to conceal the frightening amounts of added sugar contained in these super-sweet foods.
Neither would granny have given any shelf space to the cheap, highly processed, damaged and rancid polyunsaturated fats such as ‘vegetable’, sunflower, soya and rapeseed oils which are found everywhere in today’s processed, junk and fast foods… and in our kitchens. Studies are clearly showing us these oils are detrimental to our health and should be banished from our kitchens and from our plates.
Real food – affordably
With over 80% of food retail in the UK controlled by four supermarket chains, we’ve been seduced with convenience, open-all-hours-one-stop-shopping, bewildering choice, bargain-buys, and… a parking space. Along the line, we’ve been brainwashed into believing that real food is an expensive luxury.
Shifting mindsets toward real food shopping
When I speak to groups and get people to stop to think about the nature and quality (or lack of it) of the food they’re putting into their supermarket shopping trollies and their bodies, one comment comes up again and again: ‘Where can I shop, if not at the supermarket?’ People are genuinely surprised to learn that a wide variety of very accessible and affordable options are available… all it takes is a mindset shift, a little planning time and a consultation with Google.
How to shop for affordable real food
Visit the high street
Town centre parking is always a problem, but traditional butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers on the high street know where their produce comes from and are more likely to offer fresher, locally sourced produce. They’ll also carry a much wider range of traditional cuts (much cheaper and more nutrient-dense) than those found at the supermarket and they offer advice on how to prepare and cook their products. Buying local also supports the local economy, not anonymous corporate profits.
Visit a local farm shop, pick-your-own operator, or farmers’ market
Buying direct from the producer has all the benefits of high street shopping and is easily the best and most economical way to eat seasonally and source fresh, local products. While farmers’ markets can be expensive (think overhead costs of stall rents, transport, staff and opportunity costs), farm shops tend to offer better value for money and pick-your-own schemes are a seasonal, fun, money-saver. Again, buying local supports the local economy.
Support a CSA scheme
Newer on the UK scene, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) emerged to repair the local food links damaged by the anonymity of intensive large-scale farming and supermarket dominance, to promote sustainable food production and encourage reconnection with real food. For an upfront contribution, members receive a share of the food produced by the CSA: most commonly vegetables, but also poultry, bread, fruit, pork, lamb, beef and dairy produce.
It’s a win-win model: a CSA farmer has cashflow for long-term planning and members get fresh, nutritious and affordable products, support their local economy and have opportunities to get involved at practical, environmental and often social level.
Order a meat box or bulk-buy direct for full traceability
Most high-quality farmers do their own butchery and can offer a wide range of traditional, inexpensive cuts like blade and skirt and offer discounts for bulk purchases, half-a-carcass deals and free delivery with a minimum spend. Check out the Pasture for Life website for producers with mail order delivery schemes.
An increasing number of farms now deliver 100% grass-fed and organic meat nationwide (my personal go-to is Fordhall Organic Farm, a community land initiative with a commitment to education, youth projects and care farming).
Another well supported favourite is Green Pasture Farms, a collective of traditional family farms with 100% grass-fed beef and lamb, and Eversfield Organic Farm, which supply meat from farms that are certified by the Pasture Fed Livestock Association and the Soil Association, or Organic Farmers and Growers.
Buy truly free range and organic poultry
Truly free-range (and organic) poultry is beyond delicious. Springfield Poultry offers national delivery for both free range and organic naturally reared, succulent birds a million miles away from anything you’ll find in a supermarket – at any price – and a whole bird will go much, much further than you think. And you’ll have the carcass left for nutritious stock.
Order a fish box, or bulk buy online for sustainable sourcing
If you don’t have a local wet-fishmonger and aren’t prepared to travel (I regularly travel 12 miles each way to mine) then sourcing sustainable fish online, direct from a fleet or retail fishmonger, is definitely the way to go.
My tried and tested suppliers are all in Cornwall: Fish For Thought, The Cornish Fishmonger, Stevenson’s Fish, Trelawny’s Fish and Deli, and W. Harvey & Sons (for handpicked shellfish). All offer variety, great value and the less ‘fashionable’ but never-the-less delicious species like whiting, pollack and megrim sole and deliver spankingfresh fish nationally. Visit their websites to be educated and inspired.
Fifth-generation farmer Anthony Davison developed this online portal connecting farmers with customers, after discovering his onions were being sold in a supermarket for eight times their wholesale price. Anthony’s mission is to reconnect people with local food and the Big Barn portal offers over 7,500 shopping outlets, information, education and even recipes and cooking videos.
Open Food Network UK
The Open Food Network (OFN) UK is an online website bringing shoppers and food producers together. It’s made up of a community of independent producers, retailers and distributors, dedicated to building a stronger, fairer food system in the UK. Customers can shop by UK postcode for the freshest, seasonal produce at affordable prices and can define a preferred delivery service (drop-off or pick-up). Shoppers may have to order a week in advance and wait until their order is harvested/produced.
Join (or start) a local buying group
Getting together with family, friends and neighbours to start a buying group and bulk-buy store-cupboard staples (like coffee, grains, rice, beans) brings substantial savings on wholesale prices. Collective orders placed with wholefood suppliers, such as Suma, are dispatched to the wholesaler, which then delivers to a drop-off point such as a private house, where members can pick up their order. Splitting items, like a case of organic processed tomatoes or baked beans, can mean substantial savings. Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming, has a variety of resources and toolkits to help a buying group get started.
Search online for natural and organic products
Goodness Direct is an online retail shop selling natural, free-from, organic and Fairtrade food products, frozen, chilled and bulk whole foods, natural toiletries and ecofriendly household products. Substantial savings can be made on products and delivery charges by bulk ordering.
Shop one-stop-online with national box schemes
Riverford (now in employee-ownership) and Abel & Cole are the longest established and biggest box delivery schemes in the country, both offering a wide range of organic vegetables, fruit, eggs, dairy, bread and meats and other products like recipe boxes with measured ingredients. There are also many local schemes with fewer food miles and supporting the local economy.
Grow your own and/or barter with neighbours
Finally, nothing is better for health or community than the satisfaction of harvesting, preparing and eating (and sharing) your own organically grown produce. Be it veg, fruit, or eggs, home-grown produce from one’s own or a neighbour’s garden, or from a local allotment-holder will not get fresher, tastier, or more nutritious.
Is real food affordable? This granny says yes.
Try one of Izabella’s delicious recipes for yourself at IzabellaNatrins.com
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