To Avoid Processed Foods Process Your Own

Even if we stop short for now of declaring that added dietary sugar will literally kill you, findings over the last two decades on the amounts wantonly added to the food supply, and on its long-term health effects, are alarming to say the least.

By now we know the worst culprits: pre-packaged foods, in their infinite escalation of flavor warfare for the American palate, routinely deliver frightening quantities of added sugar, along with fat and sodium. The problem isn't limited to mass-produced, canned, frozen or pre-cooked meals. Locally baked bread and supermarket rotisserie chickens are just two other examples of foods fairly teeming with sugar, salt, fat and other additives to entice our taste buds at a cost to our health.

But the popular and well justified dictum to avoid processed foods does not apply to foods you process at home. One of the delights of home processing is exercising utter control over added fat, sugar and salt—without compromising flavor, even in seemingly decadent sauces and dips. Many condiments and side dishes that consumers default to purchasing ready-made off the shelves are inexpensively and easily prepared at home.

Here are three “processed” food recipes to help keep your finger on the pulse, as it were, of what is fresh, healthful and delicious, while supplying a departure point for those who have had enough of excessive sugar, fat and salt and are ready for a palate adjustment.

Tahini-free Hummus
Hummus is a delicious staple of the Middle Eastern diet, that close cousin of the well-received Mediterranean diet. But most pre-packaged brands of this chick-pea-based dip add sugar and salt that doesn't need to be there, and can easily be substituted with healthier choices like fresh squeezed lemon. Hummus traditionally contains a good dose of tahini, a sesame-based sauce that is almost pure fat (though not the least healthy type of fat). But packaged versions can overdo the addition of tahini, often just making the dip much too caloric, salty or dense. Eliminating it altogether works just fine, for a lighter dip that gets plenty of sodium from the bread or chips you use to consume the hummus.

In a food processor, combine:

  • 1 drained can cannellini beans (or chick peas)
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 1/4 cup pitted kalamata olives or 1/2 cup roasted red bell pepper
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp cayenne pepper (to taste)

While processing on low, slowly drizzle in:

  • 1 to 2 Tbsp olive oil

Process on high to finish, or remain on low depending on desired chunkiness.

Serve with your favorite bread, cracker, or dipping vegetables. Serves 4 to 6.

Homemade Tabbouleh
An excellent complement to hummus is the fiber-rich side dish tabbouleh. This dish is traditionally made of tomatoes, finely chopped parsley, mint and onion, and then seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. Bulgur is often added to the dish; you can substitute couscous or quinoa instead.

Prepare 1 cup of quinoa (or bulgur wheat):

  • Rinse, strain, and add 2 cups water and a pinch of salt
  • Bring to a boil, cook on low covered for 15 min.
  • Remove from heat and stand covered for 5 more min.

In a food processor, combine:

  • 1 bunch curly parsley, stems removed
  • 2 sprigs mint, stems removed
  • 1/2 roughly chopped yellow onion
  • 5 oz (1/3 1-lb container) cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 1/2 peeled cucumber

Pulse mixture until fine.

In a bowl, separately whisk together:

  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp ground cumin

Add parsley mixture to cooled quinoa first, then dressing on top. Mix together.

Serve with pita wedges. Serves 8.

Sugar-free Salsa
One of the most versatile and low-fat of the traditional dips is, of course, salsa. After trying (and adjusting to taste) this basic homemade recipe, you’ll be shocked to find how sugary store-bought brands can be.

In a food processor, combine:

  • 1 lb container cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 3/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro, stems removed
  • 1/2 small onion (yellow or red)
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 4 dashes of your favorite hot sauce

Pulse until desired chunkiness is achieved.

Serve with reduced-salt tortilla chips. Serves 6 to 8.

Tip: If you want to add no salt at all, replace hot sauce with ½ tsp cayenne pepper. Remember, you’re getting sodium from the tortilla chips.

Other Dips and Sauces to Try
Other easily “processed” foods that give you almost complete control over fat, sodium and sugar are: fruit smoothies, guacamole, carrot ginger dressing, split pea soup and tomato sauce. Try lemon juice and cayenne pepper blended into fat-free plain yogurt for a spicier (and healthier) alternative to store-bought sour cream and onion dip.

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