Land of the Bland

I love my food, and I love full-bodied, robust flavours, rich ingredients and fine recipes that leave a strong memory. Not everybody shares my tastes but this is a blog about those whose intolerances mean they have little or in choice: they are stuck with bland, tasteless food, and miss out on great ingredients or suffer the consequences.

We all know about allergies proving fatal, especially nut allergies that mean every foodstuff and menu item is now labelled for its nut content. But what about coeliacs who can’t tolerate wheat? Or people who can’t stomach dairy products? Or those with stomach ulcers, IBS or similar complaints, people for whom a simple curry might mean a night of pain and suffering?  Or any one of a hundred other variants which restrict the diet and, often as not, condemn the sufferer to living foodie hell: a bland diet.

A quick definition, courtesy of Wikipedia:

bland diet is a diet consisting of foods that are generally soft, low in dietary fibercooked rather than raw, and not spicyFried and fatty foods, strong cheeses, whole grains (rich in fiber), and the medications aspirin and ibuprofen are also avoided while on this diet. Such a diet is called bland because it is soothing to the digestive tract (it minimizes irritation of tissues). It can also be bland in the sense of “lacking flavor“, but it does not always have to be so; nonirritating food can be appetizing food, depending on preparation and individual preferences.

Bland diets are often recommended following stomach or intestinal surgery, or for people with ulcersheartburnnauseavomiting, and gas. A bland diet allows the digestive tract to heal before introducing more difficult to digest foods.

Many milk and dairy products are permissible, even recommended, on a bland diet, but there are a few exceptions. Chocolate-flavored dairy products are forbidden, as well as any strongly spiced cheeses or high fat dairy products such as heavy cream or half-and-half. Mild dairy foods tend to soothe irritated linings, but excessive fats, cocoa and spices can have the opposite effect.

Most canned fruits and vegetables are fine, with the exception of tomatoes. Tomato-based sauces on pasta are avoided. Bananas are good, however, higher fiber and acidic fruits should be avoided. Baked potatoes and sweet potatoes are very easily digested, but it is important to avoid high fat toppings like butterVinegar based foods such as pickles are to be avoided as are sour fermented foods like sauerkraut.

Perhaps, the most difficult adjustment for some to a bland diet may involve meats and proteins. In a strict bland food diet, softer protein sources such as smooth peanut buttereggs and tofu are encouraged over any type of fibrous or seasoned meat. Certain meats such as chicken or fish are permitted, as long as they are not heavily fried, breaded or processed like sandwich meatsSteamed chicken breast served with a salt substitute would be a typical protein serving while on a bland diet.

A bland diet is designed primarily to help patients recover from gastrointestinal conditions or other medical circumstances in which improved digestion would be essential. It is not especially effective as a long-term weight loss diet, although portion sizes are strictly controlled. Many people find a bland diet to be very difficult to maintain, although some find the use of acceptable spice alternatives does make it easier. Most patients slowly return to a more normal diet once their medical issues have been resolved, however.

To me it sounds like a fate worse than death, but there is more to it than merely the taste buds.  On one hand, they and their loved ones have to cook and eat with infinite care, watching out for “hidden ingredients” and often having to buy whatever specialist suppliers can offer at steep prices. It sounds like hell on wheels, and is much worse if it means either that you are heavily restricted in where you can eat out, quite apart from the limited options from which you can choose when you got there.

My mother no longer drinks red wine because of the effect it has on her arthritis. As a lad I suffered chronic eczema and was for a time put on a diet including goats milk and cheese, that I would probably appreciate far more nowadays. But it didn’t work anyway so now I am able to enjoy the full range of dairy products, safe in the knowledge that the only things I have to worry about are the effects on my waistline and cholesterol levels.

But pity the people who find themselves eating poached white fish and unseasoned mash and veg every night. Or worse still – the curse of chicken with everything. It’s not that I won’t eat chicken, but I do find it boring and, compared with how it can taste, totally lacking in flavour. It has become the non-veggie quorn, tasting only of whatever it is cooked with, and if that means a very under flavoured marinade or sauce then I’m afraid you’re in for a dull, dull night. If there is nothing to stimulate your senses then eating becomes a mechanical process to refuel, avoiding all the reasons to enjoy food. You may or may not have social contact but good good always creates a buzz around the table, where dull good merely makes you want to leave and go do something else.

Inventive cooks can of course find ways around the restrictions in order to find recipes that do excite the tastebuds but without aggravating whatever condition you’re lumbered with, as does a Facebook friend. She has learned to cope with adversity, helped by support groups, and still find meals that appeal, though she and those with equal culinary verve are few and far between. Most learn to restrict their diets and live without the pleasure and inspiration good food can offer. If I were in that position I’d undoubtedly do some research to find what exemptions there might be, though I’d certainly return to basic essentials and good from fresh ingredients where possible.

Taking the opposite approach, you could also go out in a blaze of glory by eating all the stuff you’re not supposed to and at least die happy. I remember one episode of the excellent Six Feet Under, a series that always began some unfortunate meeting their demise in a way that was or was not predictable. In this one, an elderly chap had whatever condition meant that be could not eat a can of peaches without it killing him, so what does he do? Obviously he treats himself to a tin of peaches – and I hope he scoffed a few more before the grim reaper got him!

For me I could not bear the thought of being forced to eat, or not eat, those foods that make life worth living, though I can think of others who just eat to refuel and don’t much care what they eat.  I guess people like Tim, a chap I used to know, would not be put off by a restrictive diet, but then I am a self-confessed foodie.  However, one distinction I’d make is that I could probably acclimatise to living without fried foods, were that a restriction placed on me by the medical fraternity – luckily an Aga makes that conversion easier to manage.

Even worse than Tim are those who eat a bland diet through choice, but my views on faddiness don’t need repeating – anyone who “doesn’t like” quality ingredients should remember we humans are designed to  e omnivores while vegitarianism can be acceptable through lifestyle choice I have little sympathy with those whose inclinations are related to unwillingness to try something different (the “not tried it, don’t like it” school), or worse yet, because their cultural heritage tells them they have to eat meat and two veg rather than tastier dishes originating elsewhere – though the standard response of many is to layer with an inch of salt and pepper and whatever other condiments fall to hand.

For them I feel no sympathy whatever, but it does make you wonder if there is a sizeable proportion of the British population, those that have yet to embrace our global culture, for whom tasting anything when you eat is simply undesirable. That would explain why supermarkets sell so many bland, tasteless products, and why they apparently sell like, well, hot cakes.

Are we really afraid of  food with flavour (as opposed to being masked by sauces, for example)?  Why would people actually prefer blandness? Are our tastebuds dying?  Since we’re no longer restricted by rationing there shouldn’t be any excuse, should there? Depends how strong the flavours are too – on the continuum of flavours almost everyone will have their limits, such as how high on the Scoville scale you can take your chillis. Most would stop well short of scotch bonnets, unless used very sparingly.

Mind you, Howard Hughes wasn’t short of a bob or two but owing to his extreme OCD and cleanliness fetish ended up eating something like gruel, which is as bland and unfulfilling as it comes.  Chacun a son gout as the French put it, though the French, Italians, Spanish, almost every continental nation take a pride in serving food that satisfies.

While many Brits fail to deliver inspiring family food as we once did, our national addiction to curries and bolognaise suggests we like flavours we have come to know and understand, particularly when it can be cooked as an easy hybrid with cook-in sauces. That is a compromise but comparatively few non-Asian families take the trouble to buy separate spices and mix their own freshly. If you want to make the tastebuds tingle that’s the way to do it, but it’s too easy to accept second or third best to save a few minutes. Also easy to use chilli to blot out the lack of subtle spicing. Not bland but uniform and predictable, which for non-cooks may be a viable goal.

The answer is clearly to educate everybody to cook more and try things out for themselves, though possibly not through TV cookery shows that err on the side of patronising.  There is a discovery element to identifying ingredients and how to get the best from them which many households seem to have lost, and are much the poorer for that.

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