Thursday, December 9, 2021

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Our ever-changing diets


What we eat, what we should eat and what we will be eating soon.

What we eat and what so-called experts tell us we should eat are like airplanes with no connecting airports. My favorite explanation of this is that medicine is the softest of all sciences, and nutrition is the melted butter of medical science. What the nutritional mafia bully people into eating — or avoiding — changes drastically every decade or two.

Remember the times before cholesterol became the great Satan of the American diet? Fifty-five years ago, the American Heart Association determined, in a very close vote, to suggest that our consumption of cholesterol should be replaced by alternative things like trans fats. The phrases 2 percent and nonfat began appearing on milk cartons, and margarine sales soared. Today, the book shelves are filled with studies about Paleo diets, ketogenic diets, low-carb diets and other high-fat regimens designed for healthier bodies and losing weight.

Curiously, rates of obesity and diabetes began rising about the same time that people were told to lose the cholesterol. Those two health epidemics really blasted off along with the 1984 (Orwell warned us about that year) decision by both Coca-Cola and Pepsi to remove sugar from its beverages in favor of the new laboratory invention of high-fructose corn syrup. Farm lobbyists pushed through government subsidies that would make sugar soft drinks far more expensive than their HFCS opponents.

After some two decades that were coincidental with alarming obesity and diabetes rates, scientists looked into whether the two things were maybe connected. Studies showed that HFCS bypassed the satiety factor. Cokes and Pepsis were usually sold in 6-ounce bottles before HFCS. Today, my local convenience store sells them in 24-, 32- and 42-ounce cups. One- and two-liter bottles dominate supermarket aisles. You can drink a case of this stuff and never feel like you had too much. U.S. negotiators have been lowering the tariff of NAFTA sugar for more than a decade now, in large part because of the new demand for real sugar soft drinks instead of HFCS ones.

Nutritionists like to date their profession to ancient times. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, said, “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.” But most of the things that natural healers like to claim as the origins of nutrition have more to do with pharmacy and chemistry. Natural cures like limes for scurvy, garlic for athlete’s foot and liver oil for eye disease acted more like drugs than like diet regimens. The discovery of Vitamin A, and the coining of the word vitamin, took place in 1912 at the University of Wisconsin. Ever since then, nutritionists have been telling others what to eat and what not to eat.

Before then, most of the great changes in diets were driven by war and commerce. People ate what they raised and what they could take by conquering others. The Age of Discovery, made possible by the invention of commercial insurance, changed that. The greatest hunger for new foods in Europe occurred with the importation of sugar, tea, cacao and coffee from Asia and the Americas. There were no nutritionists around to tell Napoleon’s soldiers to drink less sugar and coffee.

Do we overestimate the influence of nutrition in our diets today? Probably. One of the subjects that seems to dominate food journalism these days is “alternative proteins.” That means plant-based substitutes for meat and fish, plus insects. Traditional protein giant Tyson invested heavily in two companies that are plant-based producers of meat alternatives — Beyond Burgers and Memphis Meats. Local caterer Cyd Koehn and restaurateur George Formaro both tell me that these vegetarian meat alternatives are getting tastier all the time.

Perhaps their day will come as the world grows by another billion by 2030, but they still remain curiosities to most non-vegan and non-vegetarian consumers. In Des Moines, pork, beef and poultry still rule. Almost all have more choices on restaurant menus than vegetarian options. Seafood is still huge here. There are changes going on within each of those categories, though.


Remember the old phrase “Eating high on the hog?” What did that mean, and does anyone still say that? Today’s taste for pig meat treats the whole hog with pretty much equal respect. Are “high” and “low” on the hog determined from the ground up? If so, we are eating lower on the hog than in many years. Bacon and pork belly are so popular today that they often cost more per pound now than pork chops, once the very epitome of a pig’s best offering.
Are “high” and “low” measured from front to back? If so, the popularization of barbecue and charcuterie in Des Moines over the last 20 years have turned things around. No cut of a pig is more highly prized, at least after a little value-added incentive, than the once lowly butt. As prosciutto, it anchors the menu of Norwalk’s La Quercia, the company that keeps winning “best” awards both nationally and worldwide. Ordering a whole Acorn Edition Tamworth prosciutto ham from the LQ website will cost $600 to $700. That’s low on the hog by either measurement.

Des Moines remains a tenderloin town, meaning breaded and fried for the most part. Elsewhere in pigville, we are eating more of the whole hog. Cheeks are becoming more popular because of Mexican restaurants where they are usually used in tacos and burritos. La Quercia makes a guanciale from jowls. From low to high, rib tips, St. Louis style, spareribs and baby backs have a mostly equal share of fans. Shoulder is more popular than ever, because that’s where barbecuers go for their pulled pork. Hocks and trotters are finding more applications in soups and stews. Even snouts and ears are gaining interest in Des Moines.


Notice that pork is often called Iowan, as in Iowa chop, but beef is usually just labeled American? It’s been a long time since Iowa was the leading beef producer. Cattle were moved west where grazing land was much cheaper, yet the state still has a nostalgic yearning to identify with the food that made Iowa rich and famous a century ago. Steakhouses are mostly designed with leather, wood and brass trappings that smell like power and wealth. They also remain Iowans’ favorite places to celebrate the special occasions in life.

The beef we eat though has changed a lot in the 50 years since the AMA and AHA demonized cholesterol. Marbling has been intentionally reduced. Today “prime” beef is a growth market, as Paleos and ketos face down nutritionists without fear or shame. We are also consuming lots of cuts of steak that most of us had never heard of 12 years ago — flank, flat iron (aka as butler steak and oyster blade), tri tip (aka as Santa Maria), plate and hangar. Most of these cuts are new to steak in Iowa; they used to find their ways into burger and pot roasts. They all involve a tradeoff between flavor and texture. None have both like filet mignon, porterhouse and ribeye.

Burger keeps on being the No. 1 way for Americans to consume beef. Des Moines’ insatiable hunger for sports bars will keep that trend going. Vietnamese cafés in town also have excited the sales of shanks, tendons, rounds, brisket and other ingredients in the great soup pho. Short ribs are gaining menu share in the better restaurants of town, particularly in the cooler months when people like their beef braised.


When Tyson starts buying vegan burger companies, one wonders if the chicken’s long run as the most affordable protein is waning. Unlike pork and beef, Iowans are now eating less, rather than more, of the whole bird. While Vietnamese joints have reintroduced bone stock beef soup, it’s harder than ever to find bone stock chicken soup.
The incredible success of Chik-fil-A (which has the most profitable stores of any franchise) and its boneless, skinless chicken breast means that white meat is often the only part of the chicken one finds on menus.

Thighs and legs are often only served at the very best restaurants, plus Popeye’s and KFC. Prepared chicken dishes like chicken and noodles are also disappearing while almost everyone now has a breaded chicken breast sandwich, nuggets or “tenders.” Even Indian restaurants are starting to make tandoori chicken with breasts — which are too dry for the ovens — instead of thighs and legs.

Turkey remains a holiday-only protein for home cooking while it gains a greater share of the subway sandwich market. Again, dark meat is losing out to breast meat. Duck is being popularized by Vietnamese cafés but not so much elsewhere. Local farmers have given up on duck because of huge processing costs. Goose has never been popular in Iowa, except in Manning with its large German population.

Fish and seafood

Our dining world keeps shrinking thanks to Fed Ex, Waterfront, sushi bars and Splash, the pioneers in air-freighted seafood deliveries from both coasts, Hawaii and the Caribbean. Expect to see more fish that are new to Iowa. Barumundi, Australia’s favorite fish, popped up this year at Heavenly Asia. HyVee continues to expand its excellent seafood delivery business, too. The fresh fish boards at sushi joints like the Wasabi stores are a delightful way to expand your repertoire of exotic fish without leaving town.


The growing season in Iowa ended two weeks ago with the earlier than usual hard freeze. That changes things here because shoppers and restaurants have fallen for locally grown produce. Sure, the winter squashes, apples, rutabagas, daikon and a few sturdy leaves like chard and spinach will be around a while, but carbs in restaurants will focus more on pickled foods and imported foods.

Super grains like quinoa, kamut, freekeh, teff (think of injera, the Ethiopian bread), millet, bulgar and fonio are all becoming more popular in restaurants and supermarkets. Cauliflower is probably the new kale. It’s being made into pizza crusts, faux rice and smoothies. It’s a darling with Paleo, gluten-free and low-carb diets. And it’s still a good delivery system for Ranch dressing.

Chain food

No part of the food industry is as adept at copying others as fast food. Look for two rather new trends to continue
longer. Dollar menus, now usually $1-$2-$3 menus, have brought customers and profits back to McDonald’s in its
second go-round. Bundled combos of three, four and five items are also popping up and have been good to Taco Bell, among others.

With fewer Jewish delis operating each year nationally, and only one in Des Moines, expect to see more Jewish deli items on menus of places like Jason’s and Mcallister’s. Far more self-service stations will appear in fastfood joints. They compensate for labor shortages, and more and more people pay with cards rather than cash now.

Other trends

White tablecloth dining is chasing the dinosaur. Mainly it’s because of laundry bills. Parking is going to become a bigger issue in Des Moines, especially in bad weather months when diners don’t want to walk far in good shoes. Downtown keeps making parking harder to find and more expensive, giving the places with free, large parking lots a leg up.

Brats have conquered the sausage world. Made with pork and chicken now, and rarely beef, they fit America’s appetite for larger servings (than most hot dogs), and they are rather easy for supermarkets to make themselves, as Fareway and Fresh Thyme have learned. The hot dog is being driven from non-sports venues. Of convenience stores in town, to my knowledge, only QT still has a self-service station for making Chicago dogs, etc. The QT on Ingersoll, ironically, sells a lot of those dogs to the construction crews working across the street at the sensational new Kum & Go headquarters.

Work staffs will remain the biggest obstacle to Des Moines restaurateurs, across the board. We have built more new restaurants than the city can staff. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Latinos are exiting more quickly and entering more slowly than they have in two decades. ♦

One Comment

  1. N. Mann says:

    Interesting and informative. Thanks!

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