Lou's Clues: Subtracting the additives ... and make a cheaper, healthier meal

As you've probably guessed by now, I'm a big fan of home cooking. That's not to say that I don't enjoy a good meal out once in a while, or that I can't appreciate the convenience of the occasional microwave dinner, but chances are if I can make it from scratch, I will. And this isn't just a matter of pride -- it's a matter of health. This week I'm going to let you in on the wonderful world of FOOD ADDITIVES, and I'm not talking vitamins or artificial flavoring. I'm talking the chemicals you often find in processed foods that are no good for you.

Let's take a look at some of the nasty little things they're putting in our food:

MonoSodium Glutamate (MSG): You all know about this stuff, as in -- "I'll have the Chow Mein, but hold the MSG, please." But what harm does this stuff do besides leaving your head feeling like the world globe at Epcot? According to a noted author and neurosurgeon, Dr. Russell Blaylock, it seems that MSG and artificial sweeteners cause "excitotoxic" damage, which is to say, they kill sensitive neurons. Doesn't sound bad enough to you? Consider this: this kind of neuron death is a contributing cause to sudden cardiac death. Think avoiding the takeout from Golden Palace is enough to keep the MSG out of your system? Think again -- MSG can be found in everything from diet drinks to hot dogs to dressings and chips.

Aspartame: While on the subject of artificial sweeteners, let's look at this "sweetie." As far back as its introduction in the '70's, aspartame has been known to cause cancer in rats if consumed in large amounts. In 2005, a new study showed it can cause increased Lymphomas and Leukemia as well! People sensitive to this product suffer from headaches, dizziness, and, in extreme cases, hallucinations. Where is it hiding? Diet anything, for starters -- sodas, teas, etc. It also lurks in a lot of unexpected items labeled "low cal" -- yogurt, for example, often contains aspartame in lieu of sugar.

Potassium Bromate: Here's a little gem that you may find in some bread products. It makes for a finer blend and better crumb, but at what cost? Potassium bromate is considered a carcinogen and has been banned in Europe, the UK, and even China. It is not, however, banned here in the US. This is just one reason I'm a big fan of baking your own bread. I mean, really, homemade bread can be pretty simple: flour, water, yeast, possibly salt or some reactive sugar, and that's all folks! No bromate needed.

Sodium Nitrite: You see this in most prepared meats and cold cuts (although I make plenty of sausage and my own cold cuts and this is one item I don't add). It is a preservative, coloring and flavoring in bacon, ham, hot dogs, luncheon meats, corned beef, smoked fish and other processed meats. This chemical can lead to the formation of cancer causing chemicals called nitrosamines, which have been strongly linked to human cancers.

You also want to stay away from some of the red, blue, and yellow food dyes, which have been known to cause health problems in significant dosages as well.

If you're like me, you've probably read all of this and are now wondering what you can do to keep all these things out of your pantry and your body. My first suggestion is to toss the junk that you don't need anyhow -- sodas and over-processed foods -- and adopt my Scratch Kitchen lifestyle.

What exactly is a "Scratch Kitchen" and how does it preserve your health as well as save you money? The answer is simple: make it yourself -- from scratch. Do this within reason, of course -- I'm not suggesting you spend hours doing things like making your own pasta or slaving all evening over complicated dishes. Just cut out the boxed, prepared foods and stretch your creative legs!

I love a nice scalloped potato side dish as well as the next guy. The boxed version of this can cost as much as $2.59, (don't worry, there's no added charge for the additives -- those are free whether you want them or not!). However, with a couple of staple ingredients (potatoes, some milk or cream and a little bit of cheese), you can do it for way less, and have a dish that taste better anyway!

Like chicken soup? I love it. But I don't buy chicken stock. Instead, I save all those end pieces from the onions and celery, and all those bones and pieces of skin from a roasted chicken dinner. Toss them in a pot of water and simmer, and you have a base for your own homemade stock without all the added sodium in a bouillon base. And, since you're essentially using the leftovers of a previous meal, you can pretty much consider your soup stock to be FREE! FREE is GOOD!

Here are some more areas that will save you money as well as your good health:

-- Instead of buying those nitrite-laden cold cuts, cook a whole roast for dinner, then slice up the leftovers for cold cuts throughout the week.
-- Avoid artificial sweeteners by dusting off that Crock Pot and simmering your own pasta sauce. The best part? You can toss all the ingredients in before you leave for the day, use the timer or slow cook functions and arrive home just in time to brag about your homemade marinara. It's also great for stews that taste way better than the kind you'd scoop out of a can.
-- Buy more FRESH fruits and veggies, to avoid all the corn syrup or sodium you can end up with when you buy the canned versions.

The list goes on, but you get the point. Keep an eye out for my next blog, where I will give you some great Crock Pot answers to some of the least expensive but most flavorful meat cuts on the planet!

Chef Louie hosts Good Day Food & Wine, a nationally syndicated weekend radio show. A culinary veteran, Chef Louie pledges to empower you in the kitchen and supermarket, and help you eat better, entertain better and keep more of that hard-earned money close to home. Sign up for his free e-newsletter here.
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