My daughter's friends have recently begun bringing sweet snacks to school to brighten the mid-morning recess of this poor child, whose mother (me) deprives her of junk food. Oreo Cookies, now available in even the smallest of French supermarkets, have become my daughter's favorite snack, so much so that she recently asked for a packet of them for her ninth birthday.
In a moment of weakness, I made my way to the supermarket to purchase said cookies. Although I have a strict "no junk food" rule, I didn't want to seem like a food fundamentalist. I mean: one packet of Oreos - no big deal, right?
As I lifted the packet off the shelf, I couldn't help glancing at the ingredients and my heart sank. According to manufacturer Nabisco, these edible food-like discs contain (in this order) "sugar, enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid) high oleic canola oil and/or palm oil and/or canola oil and/or soybean oil, cocoa (processed with alkali), high fructose corn syrup, cornstarch, leavening (baking soda and/or calcium phosphate), salt, soy lecithin, vanillin - an artificial flavor, chocolate."
As a rule, I avoid buying anything that lists sugar as its first ingredient. In my children, it causes highly-strung, jittery behavior followed by tearful irritability. In me, it causes the above symptoms plus bloating, exhaustion and sugar cravings. Sugar is not a food; it is at best a condiment. As a first ingredient, it's a no-no.
Next ingredient: enriched flour. Sounds nice: "enriched." How thoughtful of them to put all those extra nutrients in. But what it really means is: "We've taken all the natural goodness out of this grain when we refined it and now we're putting four vitamins and one mineral back in." Of course, this denatured flour bears little resemblance to the vast panoply of nutrients available from whole, unrefined grains.
As for the fats: why won't the manufacturer say which fats they used the day the cookies were made? Doesn't this vague list of oils, selected at the manufacturer's discretion, open the door to the cheapest, lowest-grade processed fats available on any given day? Although scientists continue to argue about the health effects of dietary fats, few would dispute that denatured, mass-produced factory oils are unlikely to offer health benefits, and may well contain inflammation-fueling omega-6 fatty acids and trans fats.
Next ingredient: cocoa. This at least is healthy, right? Well, yes, when it's "raw" (i.e. naturally fermented, dried, defatted and ground into a powder), cocoa is chock-full of plant chemicals called procyanidins, thought to have powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and tumor-growth-inhibiting properties.
However, the industrial process of "dutching" (i.e. treating cocoa with an alkalizing agent to modify its color and give it a milder flavor) sharply reduces the polyphenol content in cocoa. One study found that 60 per cent of natural cocoa's original antioxidants were destroyed by even light dutching, and 90 per cent were destroyed by heavy dutching.
High-fructose corn syrup, the next ingredient, doesn't offer much more hope of sustenance to my growing child. Along with sugar (above) it can disrupt blood-sugar metabolism, feed cancer cells (see this post) and contribute to weight gain - especially around the middle, the least healthy place to carry extra fat.
As for baking soda - sorry to be a party pooper, but researchers recently found that when combined with cocoa, the latter's polyphenol content is sharply reduced. One study found that in chocolate cakes leavened with baking soda, the amount of procyanidins declined by 84 per cent; the same recipe prepared with baking powder showed no loss at all.
Dispirited by my Oreo fact-finding mission, I decided I'd rather be branded a boring old food purist than feed my daughter a concoction of cheap sugars and fats. I replaced the cookies on the supermarket shelf, drove home and Googled "Homemade Oreo cookies".
And this is what I found: a fabulous recipe by French Laundry chef Thomas Keller. I made a few adjustments to the ingredients, swapping soured crème fraiche for heavy cream, reducing the amount of white chocolate, swapping baking powder for baking soda, whole spelt flour for white wheat flour, using raw cocoa and scraping a vanilla bean into the cream.
I also simplified the cookie-shaping: instead of rolling out the very sticky dough (which required angelic patience), I pinched off small portions of dough, rolled them into balls, placed them on the paper-lined baking tray and flattened them into discs with my fingertips - less precise, but mercifully quick.
Don't get me wrong; these cookies *do* contain sugar, fats and calories aplenty and are not something to eat every day. But I take comfort from the fact that all the ingredients are natural, minimally processed and - apart from the sugar - contain useful nutrients. They also taste amazing, the crunchy, bitter cookie contrasting beautifully with the sweet, sticky cream inside.
Best of all, my daughter loved them! "They don't look so great, but they taste much better than the real ones," my daughter opined. She took a few cookies into school the next day for her friends to taste. To my great surprise, they agreed with her. Guess who gets to provide the next round of Faux-reos at recess?
Photograph courtesy of "C" at www.projectmcb.com
Copyright Conner Middelmann-Whitney. Conner is a nturitionist and health writer and teaches health-cookery classes. She recently published Zest for Life, The Mediterranean Anti-Cancer Diet, a cancer-prevention nutrition guide and cookbook anchored in the traditional Mediterranean diet.