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Hero Without a Sandwich

When you can't pronounce the ingredients, does that mean there are no calories?

By Allie Gottlieb

IT WASN'T until months after I lost 32.4 pounds that I realized I no longer eat food. I didn't stop eating. I just stopped eating the things one normally recognizes as 100 percent regular old food. Everything that I consume now has some sort of qualifier in its name and a lot of plastic packaging.

Credit for my artificial diet goes in part to my vegetarian affiliation as well as my goals for slimming down. But it was the Southern California Safeway strikers who helped me figure out I have a problem. Since I live just behind a well-stocked Bay Area Safeway, and I like to eat in large quantities, I shop there as much as possible. It's like an extension of my refrigerator, albeit one which charges me money. But the workers' rights fights capture my sympathy--hi ho, hi ho--so I didn't cross the picket line when Orange County grocery union members trekked up here to solicit public support over the last few months. Instead of scabbing out, I decided to brave grocery stores with narrower bounties than the gigantic Safeway mother ship.

My weight containment program is structured, in part, around an acute neurosis centering on brand loyalty. It took the better part of a year to whittle my eating habits down to a science that allowed me to lose the flesh equivalent of a big bag of kitty litter. The Safeway hiatus sucked because most grocery stores don't carry all of the weird things I now live on.

A week or so before the strike ended, I found myself standing in line at CALA (which is owned by the same corporate cats who battled the Safeway workers but which hosted no picket line for me to worry about crossing, and so I shopped there anyway). Eyeing the loot I'd piled on the check out conveyer belt, I reflected on my "food" choices.

I'd opted for the powdered nonfat dry milk, 98 percent fat-free Skinny Cow ice cream sandwiches, "smart" vegan soy bacon, fake meat salami and fake meat turkey. I'd selected light Oroweat bread with half the calories of a regular loaf, diet Dr. Pepper, which somehow exists as matter despite its containing no calories at all, vegan soy-based sandwich spread and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter Light.

The Smart Bacon, tantalizingly characterized by its marketers as "meatless low-fat cholesterol free strips," gets its salty imitation taste from soy-protein isolate, textured wheat gluten, potato starch, spices, smoke flavor and some other natural crap. But no MSG or nitrites, like normal bacon. I've only recently learned that I Can't Believe It's Not Butter Light contains gelatin. Gelatin comes from animal bones, and therefore isn't vegetarian. As a result, I will need to re-evaluate my butter substitution method. This means identifying some new even faker item that will serve in place of my light bread lubricant.

It's got to be a bad sign that after I've eaten everything from a shopping spree such as the CALA episode of February 2004, my kitchen counter winds up covered with plastic packaging. The food itself isn't made entirely of plastic, I understand. But the amount of synthetic material that the synthetic food comes wrapped in is fascinating.

I wonder how many calories it has?

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From the March 24-31, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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