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This article was written on 02 May 2012, and is filled under Health News.

Let’s cook from scratch! (Recipes included)

Processed, packaged and prepared foods are convenient, but how are they affecting our health? Even if you do your best label reading and choose seemingly nutritious foods, you may not be getting what you paid for.

Last week, media agencies learned that some of the world’s biggest and most trusted food companies were caught with food packages bearing misleading Nutrition Facts panels that failed Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) testing.  Some packages understated the amount of bad nutrients in their products, such as fat, sugar and sodium. Others overstated the amount of good nutrients, like fibre or omega-3 fat. But soon, this sort of information will no longer be available…

In the budget plan released in March 2012, the Conservative government announced it would no longer verify nutrition claims on food labels, and will instead set up a website where consumers can take their concerns directly to food producers.

Really?

Would a typical consumer’s taste buds be able to detect that the cereal they are eating has only one gram of fibre instead of the label-stated six grams? Of course not. Is a consumer’s concern going to make a big food company change their label?

With no verification of labels by the CFIA, food companies may become even more lax about using correct health claims. In the most current rounds of testing (statistics collected from 2006 and 2010), the CFIA found that a whopping 58 per cent of products did not live up to all the nutrition information on their packaging. And that was WITH the supposed CFIA monitoring.

Hmm… Maybe consumers can do a better job?

Try some home cooking with unprocessed ingredients

With no way of knowing exactly what nutrients are contained in packaged foods, I advocate relying on foods that aren’t heavily processed. There’s no guesswork in figuring out that chickpeas are high in fibre, salmon contains omega-3 fat and carrots are chock-full of vitamin A. With fresh foods, you get what you pay for with no marketing tricks. 

If the budget cuts are taking away from verification of nutrition labels of grocery products, the much-debated idea of having nutrition labels on restaurant menus won’t become a law anytime soon.

On a typical day, Canadians eat 17.7 million meals in restaurants. This reliance on prepared food means that not enough families are sitting down to share a home-cooked meal. With no control over what is served to them, restaurant meals may be needlessly high in fat, salt and sugar. And since people tend to choose foods based on how they taste rather than how nutritious they are, you can bet that most plates are not filled with fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

When you cook at home, you have more control over the ingredients you use, which helps you make healthier, more nutrient-rich choices for your family. This got me thinking…Is it possible to enjoy the flavour of restaurant-quality meals while cooking at home with healthy ingredients?

The answer, according to two of my culinary heroes, is a resounding yes. 

Through my travels last month, I was fortunate to cross paths with two extraordinary chefs — Michael Smith and Tawfik Shehata. While the two are different in terms of their background, influences and cooking style, both are passionate about using locally sourced ingredients and eating nutritious foods that taste great.

Chef Smith is working in collaboration with Canadian Lentils to raise the profile of this mighty home-grown pulse. And Shehata has joined forces with Foodland Ontario to promote local produce such as cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplant. Both have developed recipes that are accessible to a regular kitchen, and the flavours are out of this world.

Merging healthy foods with chefs who know how to make them taste great can bridge the gap between "delicious" and "nutritious." Try Tawfik Shehata’s Ontario Lake Trout with Panzanella Salad and Michael Smith's Sweet Potato Lentil Chili with Cinnamon Sour Cream.

Smith and Shehata create passionate, tasty food that people want to eat. And with ingredients such as lentils, trout, sweet potatoes and eggplant being used, there is no concern that the Nutrition Facts panel is incorrect or that CFIA has not done a complete inspection. It’s only simple, good-for-you food that tastes great too.

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