Well, I should probably be more specific and clarify that I’m referring not to the Paleo movement itself, which is booming, but to the Paleo market. Over the last few months I’ve noticed several products, especially books, that sell under a Paleo tag when in fact they tend to distort the very core of the Paleo concept. So, I’ll be taking a critical look at some categories of products that have been cropping up.
That’s an oxymoron if I ever heard one. However, since we’re not actually trying to live as cavemen, I guess there’s some leeway we can play with. Paleo baking should come with a huge Buyer Beware warning as, more often than not, the ingredients used are best avoided. There are two things to look out for here: the “flour” and the sweetener used.
The two kinds of “flour” used most often in Paleo baking recipes are nut flour and coconut flour.
The latter is the more benign choice, though anything you bake with it will have a distinctive coconut-y flavor – it’s up to you whether you like it or not. As for nut flour, you might think that since nuts are allowed in a Paleo diet, why not grind them and use the flour? Nuts are rich in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, and for that reason we should avoid eating them in large quantities, such as what would be needed to make baked goods. Nowadays, we can buy nuts in bags, already shelled, and tend to munch on them mindlessly, but if, in order to eat e.g. walnuts, you had to harvest them straight from the tree and then crack the shells, I doubt you’d have more than a handful at a time. I only bake once or twice a month or so, but prefer gluten-free flour (not Paleo, I know) over nut flour for savory bakes, and coconut flour for sweet bakes.
The issue with sweeteners is actually pretty simple, but I’m constantly amazed at how convoluted it tends to get. To keep it simple, the only sweetener that is truly Paleo is raw honey. The same caveat as nuts applies here as well: consume only as much as you would if you had to harvest it yourself, climbing trees with angry bees attacking you ;p Think of honey as liquid gold, and use it sparingly. The one alternative I’m willing to consider is Stevia, and I do mean the actual plant, not chemically processed extract or little white tabs that come in a box. Of course, this would only be applicable in recipes that use water, which you would sweeten with the leaves prior to mixing with the rest of the ingredients. Even so, it’s a valid option.
I’m amazed by the amount of recipes out there for Paleo desserts.Some of them are legit, while others don’t even come close. What I dislike about the plethora of Paleo dessert cookbooks is that they create the false impression that eating dessert on a regular basis is perfectly acceptable, when in fact it should be considered a treat to indulge in no more than once or twice per week. For example, say you get a book with 100 recipes; it should take you 2-3 years to taste every single one of them!
My idea of dessert revolves around either fruit or high-quality dark chocolate. When I prepare dessert for myself, I’ll just grab a piece of fruit or melt a chunk of chocolate over a handful of nuts, and that’s it. When I want to serve dessert to my family, I never prepare fruit platters, though, since people tend to overeat. Instead, I’ll opt for something like poached pears with chocolate fudge or baked apples with a little nut streusel. I avoid adding any sweetener (everything I wrote in the previous section still applies) as the sugars in fruit caramelize as they cook and provide enough sweetness, while the dark chocolate already contains some sugar.
Use your imagination and play around with spices and combination, or follow a recipe. In the end, however, be reasonable as to how often you eat dessert.
Often, the food we eat comes with its very own emotional baggage. If we’ve associated a certain dish with happy memories, we want to eat it again to relive those euphoric feelings. Although the concept has been widely conventionalized, I find that comfort foods are highly personal, simply because each individual has unique experiences tied to certain dishes.
For example, two or three times a year, my family makes manti (mahn-TEE), tiny meat-filled dumplings, served in thin tomato soup, topped with tzatziki sauce (full-fat strained yogurt with crushed garlic) and sprinkled with sumac spice. It’s a time for the whole family to get together, and I’m willing to forgo my Paleo eating for a day and simply enjoy the experience. I know I could try making the recipe with gluten-free flour, but decide not to bother since it’s only a couple of times a year anyway, and my body can handle it thanks to eating Paleo all the rest of the time.
While doing the Whole30 challenge, food makeovers were out of the question. I was eating Paleo-only meals, without being allowed to make Paleo versions of my favorite or most often consumed dishes. The point was to free my mind of mindless attachment to certain foods, and it worked for the most part. Post-challenge, the goal is to eat clean 95% of the time in order to fortify the body so that it can deal with that 5% deviation. It really gives a new meaning to the phrase “special occasion”.
Junk food, though, is a completely different monster. If you’re used to buying your food ready-to-eat, then chances are you’re addicted. David Kessler made a great point about the addictive nature of processed foods due to the addition of fat, sugar, and salt a few years back – click here to see an interview (it starts at around the 12-minute mark). The fact is that your homemade makeovers will never match the taste you’re used to, and ultimately your addicted brain will rebel. The solution is to eschew any dish you’re possibly addicted to, and use completely new flavors to stimulate your taste buds. Once you’ve been “clean” for a while, you may start thinking about making Paleo versions of formerly-addictive dishes. It’s a risky experiment; you may find that consuming Paleoified dishes is not that pleasurable after all and simply shrug them off, or you may get a hankering for the “real thing”.
In conclusion, I find that Paleo writers and bloggers trying to carve a slice out of the Paleo “pie” have been giving too much emphasis in the above categories when they should instead be trying to help people wean themselves off such foods. True, there is a time and place for makeover dishes, desserts, and bakes, but their part in a Paleo diet is too small to justify the time/effort put into creating the amount of recipes one can track down both on the Web and in bookstores.