Notes on that cooking study

Yesterday I filed a short article for NPR's The Salt about a study showing a conclusion that might surprise many people interested in food and health. The data showed that cooking more was related to poor performance in some health markers like high blood pressure.

I thought it would be an interesting study to write about because of that counter-intuitive conclusion, because it required me to really look at the statistics, and because it was so badly reported elsewhere. For example The Daily Mail says "Said to be down to big portions and the overuse of unhealthy ingredients." 

The data they used for the study said nothing about ingredients. It also was hinging on a self-reported annual questionnaire. And ultimately the question they asked was about TIME spent preparing and cleaning up after meals, not whether they were cooking at all. 

This kind of thing also explains that occasionally when health-messengers try to say how important cooking is, that someone will say "my [relative] cooked and they said an early death probably related to their diet." 

To me this all wasn't very surprising. I have relatives who cooked everything from scratch and died young (I think this is especially common in some parts of the South where recipes have included lots of things like sugar and white flour for a long time). And last year when I worked at home I spent a massive amount of time cooking. Everything I made was made from scratch and was gluten-free, but of course you can make huge rich portions this way (butter burgers with cheese buns and pork-belly BBQ sauce!). And I did. And my biomarkers after that time weren't great.

After that I dialed back and cooked more simply. Eggs? Those take less than 20 minutes even if you make them nicely, especially if your pan is well-seasoned. And there are plenty of healthy foods that don't require cooking at all like smoked salmon or nuts. I realized that I'd have to be more conscious and not just rely on the fact I wasn't eating fast or processed foods to stay healthy. 

I think those of us who started cooking for health reasons underestimate how unhealthy some home cooking can be. Michael Moss's Salt Sugar Fat discusses how much time and money food companies have devoted to things like producing recipes and cookbooks. When I was a kid for some reason I just liked reading cookbooks and I remember some of my favorites were The Pillsbury Back-Off yearly cookbooks and Betty Crocker's, a personality made up by General Mills. 

The second move by the industry was perhaps the most influential of all. To compete with the home-cooking skills being taught by Betty Dickson and the other home economics teachers, the industry wielded its very own Betty to preach the creed of convenience. Her name was Betty Crocker, and she quickly became one of the most famous women in America , notwithstanding the fact that she was entirely fake . Betty Crocker had been invented by the manager of the advertising department at Washburn Crosby, which later became General Mills, and this Betty never slept. 

The other interesting thing about this study is the reaction of health messengers, many of whom seem to have such emotional attachment to their ideas that this study upset them. And I think that's a problem. I know so many people who tell me "I'll start cooking at home and getting healthy soon." As if cooking from home is the only way to eat well. And I think cooking from home is an important skill and we should teach it in schools (though not funded by General Mills like they sometimes were in the 50s), but if it's not feasible right now there are other ways to eat well. Cooking isn't magical after all.