Food B4 Thought
I promise you, I’m the last guy you’d want dietary advice from, and I’m not even going to try. I do want to make some observations that might make you look at food, and food politics, in a new way. My goal is for you to know something about what you’re eating. You can make your own choices.
Duke University just came out with a study reported by the National Journal of Health, that 34% of Americans are obese. That’s a staggering number, and it’s predicted to be 42% by 2030. Last year the CDC (Center for Disease Control) told us that 14% of us are diabetic, and it will be 30% by 2050. How is this happening? What’s going on with our food? Back in the dark ages when I was a kid, my mother would bake bread. There were only four ingredients: flour, water, yeast, and a little salt. Have you looked at the label of a loaf of bread, lately?
What’s going on is the corporatization of the food chain. I’m going to be using a lot of material from Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. He’s also featured in a superb documentary, “Food, Inc.” I think he makes a lot of sense on this subject. He calls most of what we eat “industrial food.” Nearly all of our food supply is controlled by giant agribusiness corporations, like Archer Daniels Midland, Con Agra, and Cargill. In the name of profit, they are pumping pesticides, plastics, and carcinogens into everything we eat.
Let’s look at corn. The first section of The Omnivore’s Dilemma is about this versatile member of the grass family, and what better living through chemistry has done to it. About 2/3 of agriculture in the U.S. is corn or soybean crops. They are used to make hundreds of food additives that go into all our processed food. Corn kernels are big bags of starch that can be broken down and reassembled into all kinds of products — malto-dextrin, dextrose, monosodium glutamate (MSG), corn starch, ascorbic acid, baking powder, citric acid, citrates (magnesium and potassium), brown sugar, malt and malt extract, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, mono and di-glycerides, xanthan gum (a thickener found in everything from salad dressing to mayo to milk shakes), lactic acid, malic acid, modified food starch, polydextrose, saccharin, sodium erythorbate, vinegar, magnesium stearate, and so on. Look at any label on breakfast cereal, pop tarts, or anything else, and you’ll see these names.
Then there’s public enemy #1 — high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS. This stuff is metabolized by the body differently than natural sugars, or even table sugar. It creates the desire to eat or drink more, because the molecular enzymes that tell us to stop eating have been disabled. HFCS may be largely responsible for the obesity and diabetes epidemics, just by itself. Americans consume between 35-40 pounds of this stuff annually. The name has been so tarnished that the American Corn Growers Association lobbied the FDA to change the name to corn sugar, but that name had already been patented. So look for “corn syrup” on the labels; that’s what HFCS is called now. UCLA did a study with rats. After a five day training session in a maze, they fed half the rats a normal diet, and the other half HFCS-laced food. After six weeks they found the HFCS rats showed a decline of synaptic brain activity, with higher insulin resistance (a pre-diabetic condition). They were slower and retained less memory.
As if all this weren’t bad enough, virtually all the corn grown in the U.S. has been genetically modified. Monsanto, whose stated goal is to control 100% of the world’s food supply, has been the big mover and shaker of this development. Unlike Europe, food labels in the U.S. don’t have to disclose if any of the ingredients are GMOs, and you can thank the lobbyists for this too. In the past 15 years, $70 billion of your tax dollars have gone into subsidies for the corn lobby. Of course that includes ethanol, another boondoggle.
We humans have a real weakness for three tastes; sugar, salt, and fat. As we evolved, these were in short supply. Salt could be found in natural deposits, fats came from animals, and sugars from fruits and vegetables. Today these things are in just about everything we eat, and we know now that they are literally addictive. So what do you say, let’s go to the supermarket!
Big grocery stores are all organized the same way. Most of the traffic is in the central aisles, so that’s where all the junk is. If you want the best food, keep to the outside perimeters, where the fruit, produce, meat and diary is located. About the only think worth eating in the middle aisles are the dried beans, rice, etc. When I find myself wandering in the middle aisles, I stay away from anything that makes health claims. The healthier the claim, the worse it is. I avoid anything that has a phony-ass bucolic name, like Nature’s Happy Valley, or Hill Valley Acres. Just more lies. Pollan advises to avoid products with more than five ingredients, or with any you can’t pronounce.
Unfortunately, food isn’t only a matter of politics; it has an ugly economic aspect. It’s a sad irony that the healthiest food is also the most expensive, so it’s easier for the wealthy to eat well. And there’s a direct link between poverty and obesity, too. Equalitytrust.org.uk has studied wealth inequality among developed as well as third world nations. There is a higher rate of obesity among the poor, because of the food they eat. In many inner cities you have people without cars, who depend on public transportation. The nearest supermarket may be miles away. These areas are being called food deserts. There is a “growing” movement to plant vegetables and fruit on rooftops & community gardens, which will mitigate the situation. Also, farmers markets more often accept food stamps, so these are encouraging signs.
What we Americans eat has brought us epidemics of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, possibly even ADHD and autism. It’s not doing any wonders for critical thinking, either. We should try to eat healthy whenever we can. While pulling dandelions, I should be chewing on the leaves. They’re bitter as hell, but they’re full of good stuff for us. As someone on a severely limited income, I do my best. For one thing, I’ve made a concentrated effort to stay away from factory-farmed animal flesh. These animals are treated brutally, and live lives of constant horror before being led to non-humane slaughter. That’s a personal decision I’ve made, and I can’t do it 100%, but I don’t want to contribute any more to that holocaust than I have to. I’m not trying to convert anyone else, they can choose for themselves. Since alternative measures are pretty scarce, I have to supplement my diet with more grains, dried beans or lentils, and so on. It hasn’t been easy; I’ve sinned every so often with beef or sausage.
My biggest problem is my sweet tooth, which is why I have a lot less of them than
I used to. It would be easy if I hated processed food, but I love it. They make it taste so good with all those sugars, salts, and fats. We love it, we want it, got to have it. I’ve been hooked on the drugs, and the food industry is the drug pusher. As with so much in our culture, it’s all about instant gratification (whether it’s the latest iPhone app, video game, or sugary sweet). We’re doing the same thing to the planet as we are to our bodies, if you want a metaphor. Our dis-ease is only one symptom of our separation from the natural environment. We can either keep on this way until we “starve” ourselves, or we can show a little respect, for ourselves and everything else. That’s the choice we make every day, in everything we do.
“Not only are you what you eat, you are what you eat eats, too.” — Michael Pollan