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11. Although, as has just been stated, food may be considered as anything that the human engine can make over into tissue or use in living and working, not all foods are equally desirable any more than all materials are equally good in the construction of a steam engine and in the production of its working power. Those food substances which are the most wholesome and healthful are the ones to be chosen, but proper choice cannot be made unless the buyer knows of what the particular food consists and what it is expected to do. To aid in the selection of food, therefore, it is extremely necessary to become familiar with the five substances, constituents, or principles of which foods are made up; namely, water, mineral matter, or ash, protein, fat, and carbohydrate. A knowledge of these will help also in determining the cooking methods to adopt, for this depends on the effect that heat has on the various substances present in a food. Of course, so far as flavor is concerned, it is possible for the experienced cook to prepare many dishes successfully without knowing the effect of heat on the different food constituents; but to cook intelligently, with that success which makes for actual economy and digestibility, certain facts must be known concerning the food principles and the effect of dry and moist heat on foods.

12. WATER.--Of the various constituents that are found in the human body, water occurs in the largest quantity. As a food substance, it is an extremely important feature of a person's diet. Its chief purpose is to replenish the liquids of the body and to assist in the digestion of food. Although nature provides considerable amounts of water in most foods, large quantities must be taken in the diet as a beverage. In fact, it is the need of the body for water that has led to the development of numerous beverages. Besides being necessary in building up the body and keeping it in a healthy condition, water has a special function to perform in cooking, as is explained later. Although this food substance is extremely essential to life, it is seldom considered in the selection of food, because, as has just been mentioned, nearly all foods contain water.

13. MINERAL MATTER.--Ranking next to water in the quantity contained in the human body is mineral matter. This constituent, which is also called ash or mineral salts, forms the main part of the body's framework, or skeleton. In the building and maintaining of the body, mineral salts serve three purposes--to give rigidity and permanence to the skeleton, to form an essential element of active tissue, and to provide the required alkalinity or acidity for the digestive juices and other secretions.

The origin and distribution of these mineral substances are of interest. Plants in their growth seize from the earth the salts of minerals and combine them with other substances that make up their living tissue. Then human beings, as well as other living creatures, get their supply of these needed salts from the plants that they take as food, this being the only form in which the salts can be thoroughly assimilated. These salts are not affected by cooking unless some process is used that removes such of them as are readily soluble in water. When this occurs, the result is usually waste, as, for instance, where no use is made of the water in which some vegetables are boiled. As is true of water, mineral matter, even though it is found in large quantities in the body, is usually disregarded when food is purchased. This is due to the fact that this important nutritive material appears in some form in nearly all foods and therefore does not necessitate the housewife's stopping to question its presence.

14. PROTEIN.--The food substance known as protein is a very important factor in the growth and repair of the body; in fact, these processes cannot be carried on unless protein is present in the diet. However, while a certain quantity of protein is essential, the amount is not very large and more than is required is likely to be harmful, or, since the body can make no use of it, to be at least waste material. The principal sources of protein are lean meat, eggs, milk, certain grains, nuts, and the legumes, which include such foods as beans and peas. Because of the ease with which they are digested, meat, fish, eggs, and milk are more valuable sources of protein than bread, beans, and nuts. However, as the foods that are most valuable for proteins cost more than others, a mixed diet is necessary if only a limited amount of money with which to purchase foods is available.

15. So much is involved in the cooking of foods containing protein that the effect of heat on such foods should be thoroughly understood. The cooking of any food, as is generally understood, tends to break up the food and prepare it for digestion. However, foods have certain characteristics, such as their structure and texture, that influence their digestibility, and the method of cooking used or the degree to which the cooking is carried so affects these characteristics as to increase or decrease the digestibility of the food. In the case of foods containing protein, unless the cooking is properly done, the application of heat is liable to make the protein indigestible, for the heat first coagulates this substance--that is, causes it to become thick--and then, as the heat increases, shrinks and hardens it. This fact is clearly demonstrated in the cooking of an egg, the white of which is the type of protein called albumin. In a raw egg, the albumin is nearly liquid, but as heat is applied, it gradually coagulates until it becomes solid. If the egg is cooked too fast or too long, it toughens and shrinks and becomes less palatable, less attractive, and less digestible. However, if the egg is properly cooked after the heat has coagulated the albumin, the white will remain tender and the yolk will be fine and mealy in texture, thus rendering it digestible.

Similar results, although not so evident to the sight, are brought about through the right or wrong way of cooking practically all other foods that contain much protein. Milk, whose principal ingredient is a protein known as casein, familiar as the curd of cheese, illustrates this fact very plainly. When it is used to make cottage cheese, heating it too long or to too high a degree will toughen the curd and actually spoil the texture of the product, which will be grainy and hard, instead of smooth and tender.

16. FATS.--The food substances just discussed--water, mineral matter, and protein--yield the materials required for building and repairing the tissues of the body, but, as has been explained, the body also requires foods that produce energy, or working power. By far the greater part of the total solids of food taken into the body serve this purpose, and of these fats form a large percentage. Although fats make up such a large proportion of the daily food supply, they enter into the body composition to a less extent than do the food substances that have been explained. The fats commonly used for food are of both animal and vegetable origin, such as lard, suet, butter, cream, olive oil, nut oil, and cottonseed oil. The ordinary cooking temperatures have comparatively little effect on fat, except to melt it if it is solid. The higher temperatures decompose at least some of it, and thus liberate substances that may be irritating to the digestive tract.

17. CARBOHYDRATES.--Like fats, the food substances included in the term carbohydrates supply the body with energy. However, fats and carbohydrates differ in the forms in which they supply energy, the former producing it in the most concentrated form and the latter in the most economical form.

So that the term carbohydrate may be clearly understood and firmly fixed in the mind, it is deemed advisable to discuss briefly the composition of the body and the food that enters it. Of course, in a lesson on cookery, not so much attention need be given to this matter as in a lesson on dietetics, which is a branch of hygiene that treats of diet; nevertheless, it is important that every person who prepares food for the table be familiar with the fact that the body, as well as food, is made up of a certain number of chemical elements, of which nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen form a large part. Protein owes its importance to the fact that of the various food substances it alone contains the element nitrogen, which is absolutely essential to the formation of any plant or animal tissue. The other three elements, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, go to make up the carbohydrates; in fact, it is from the names of these three elements that the term carbohydrate is derived. The carbohydrates include the starches and sugars that are used and eaten in so many forms, and these contain the three elements mentioned, the hydrogen and oxygen contained in them being in the proportion that produces water. Thus, as will readily be seen, by separating the name into its parts--carbo (carbon) and hydrate (hydrogen and oxygen in the proportion of two parts of hydrogen and one of oxygen, that is, in the form of water)--carbohydrate is simply carbon united with water. While the facts just brought out have much to do with food economy, they are of interest here chiefly because they help to make clear the term carbohydrate, which, as will be admitted, is the only correct name for the food substance it represents.

18. STARCH, one of the chief forms of carbohydrates, is found in only the vegetable kingdom. It is present in large quantities in the grains and in potatoes; in fact, nearly all vegetables contain large or small amounts of it. It is stored in the plant in the form of granules that lie within the plant cells.

Cooking applied to starch changes it into a form that is digestible. Moist heat cooks the granules until they expand and burst and thus thicken the mass. Dry heat changes starch first into a soluble form and finally into what is called dextrine, this being the intermediate step in the changing of starch into sugar.

19. SUGAR, another important form of carbohydrate, is mainly of vegetable origin, except that which is found in milk and called lactose. This, together with the fat found in milk, supplies the child with energy before it is able to digest a variety of foods. The sap of various plants contains such large quantities of sugar that it can be crystalized out and secured in dry form. The liquid that remains is valuable as food, for, by boiling it down, it forms molasses. Sugar is also present in considerable amounts in all fruits, and much of it is in a form that can be assimilated, or taken up by the body, quickly. A sugar very similar to this natural fruit sugar is made from the starch of corn and is called glucose. Much of the carbohydrate found in vegetables, especially young, tender vegetables, is in the form of sugar, which, as the vegetables grow older, changes to starch.

Sugar melts upon the application of heat or, if it is in a melted condition, as sirup or molasses, it boils down and gives off water. When all the water has boiled away, the sugar begins to caramelize or become brown, and develops a characteristic flavor. If the cooking is continued too long, a dark-brown color and a bitter taste are developed. Because the sugar in fruits and vegetables is in solution, some of it is lost when they are boiled, unless, of course, the water in which they are cooked is utilized.

20. CELLULOSE is a form of carbohydrate closely related to starch. It helps to form the structure of plants and vegetables. Very little cellulose is digested, but it should not be ignored, because it gives the necessary bulk to the food in which it occurs and because strict attention must be paid to the cooking of it. As cellulose usually surrounds nutritive material of vegetable origin, it must be softened and loosened sufficiently by cooking to permit the nutritive material to be dissolved by the digestive juices. Then, too, in old vegetables, there is more starch and the cellulose is harder and tougher, just as an old tree is much harder than a sapling. This, then, accounts for the fact that rapid cooking is needed for some vegetables and slow cooking for others, the method and the time of cooking depending on the presence and the consistency of the cellulose that occurs in the food.

21. IMPORTANCE OF A VARIETY OF FOODS.--Every one of the five food substances just considered must be included in a person's diet; yet, with the exception of milk, no single food yields the right amounts of material necessary for tissue building and repair and for heat and energy. Even milk is in the right proportion, as far as its food substances are concerned, only for babies and very young children. It will thus be seen that to provide the body with the right foods, the diet must be such as to include all the food substances. In food selection, therefore, the characteristics of the various food substances must be considered well. Fats yield the most heat, but are the most slowly digested. Proteins and carbohydrates are more quickly digested than fats, but, in equal amounts, have less than half as much food value. Water and mineral salts do not yield heat, but are required to build tissue and to keep the body in a healthy condition. In addition, it is well to note that a well-balanced diet is one that contains all of the five food substances in just the right proportion in which the individual needs them to build up the body, repair it, and supply it with energy. What this proportion should be, however, cannot be stated offhand, because the quantity and kind of food substances necessarily vary with the size, age, and activity of each person.

Source: Woman's Institute Library of Cookery 1924

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Other Chapters: The Problem of Food | Selection of Food | Food Substances | Food Value | Digestion and Absorption of Food | Preparation of Food | Methods of Cooking | Heat for Cooking | Utensils for Cooking | Preparing Foods for Cooking | Order of Work | Cooking Time Table | Care of Food | Menus and Recipes | Terms Used in Cookery