Jun 27, 2013

Farm Fresh vs. Industrial Food - A Battle of Immense Confusion

Unless you have been residing under a rock for, say, the last fifty years or so, then the ongoing and worsening obesity rate is probably a crisis that is not very new to you. How unhealthy we have become  in our diets and "live-to-eat" lifestyle,  especially as a Western society (that's not to say we are the only culprits), is a harsh reality constantly brought to the attention of the guilty masses. Television, newspapers, studies, policies...All these outlets bombard us with mixed images on a day to day basis, junk food companies taking one side, while "whole food" foodies attempt to level the playing field with their arguments and ideas. In short, we know the problem we face, we know why the problem exists, we just don't know how to even begin to solve it. 

I thought I had a pretty solid understanding of the issue. We eat too much, and too much of the "bad stuff." I never really thought about it much more than that, and the fact that there are such different ideas and sides to the entire argument was surprising to me. I thought everyone who had an opinion was more or less under the farm fresh banner, and it was strange for me to find out there were other sides to the issue. The article that caught my attention? It was basically a counter to everything the farm fresh and wholesome, real food argument had to stand upon, and the opposite of everything that I thought to be the general consensus. And what is the title of said article? How Junk Food Can End Obesity. Seriously, you can read the article if you doubt me (please do). ---> Atlantic Article

Be warned however, as both parties are riddled with faults and stubborn ideas, and this article provides a perfect example of just how divided, irrational, and indecisive the food world is on handling this obesity crisis. Again, read the article, and try not to get too annoyed.

Needless to say, I didn't like or agree with the article whatsoever as soon as I began to read it. I lean towards the idea that eating "real" food really is the best solution to actually putting a dent in the obesity problem we face as a species, and so I was naturally biased to the idea of using junk food and industrialized processes to fix things. Sure, an increase in education regarding healthy living and a leveling out of the discrepancy between junk food costs and fresh produce costs must be addressed, along with other factors and concerns, but in my opinion at the core of the issue, comes the choices we make about what type of food we eat, along with quantity.  But what really aggravated me the most was, in my opinion, the sheer idiocy and stubbornness that seems to be displayed by both sides of this food fight. Let me explain, but once again, read the article...You'll understand what I mean.

Essentially the stance the article takes is that "every solution is solved with technology and therefore obesity will be solved that way too." This is referring to, of course, food technology, not some advanced form of fat shredding miracle medicine. It is through the slow and minor health improvements to the already current food infrastructure  the article claims, rather than the rapid and total change to farm fresh foods, that will begin to pull us from the grips of obesity. To back up this claim, first farm foods and the "wholesome food" movement is attacked.

Under the misconception that all wholefood is made of tofu and is deep fried, the article bashes organic recipe after recipe, citing vague figures that generally say, "look! This healthy recipe has lots of fat and sugar in it! It isn't better than a hamburger!" From "Vegan Cheesy Salad Booster", which I doubt a soul on this planet actually buys and uses regularly, to " spiced-lamb-sausage flatbread pizza", wholesome food is dubbed as being "pricey orgies of fat and carbs." Want another example? During one of the many rants targeted against Mark Bittman, author of the book Food Matters and a figurehead in the anti-processed, wholesome food movement, this recipe was criticized:

"I happened to catch Bittman on the Today show last year demonstrating for millions of viewers four ways to prepare corn in summertime, including a lovely dish of corn sautéed in bacon fat and topped with bacon. Anyone who thinks that such a thing is much healthier than a Whopper just hasn’t been paying attention to obesity science for the past few decades."

Ya, and anyone who thinks corn dunked in bacon fat and lard is a typical meal for the typical wholesome foodie is clearly either uninformed and ignorant, or using a weak argument because there is simply no ground to stand upon otherwise. Corn sauteed in bacon fat? The wholesome food movement was not created and started by Paula Deen (although she sure could use the credit, giving her current circumstances). Not every wholefoods recipe is dripping with fat and salt, and not every "farm fresh" idea is an artery clogger. Yes, we can make them into those types of recipes, and turn farm food or natural food into something unhealthy, but then is that really a wholesome food recipe after all? I wouldn't think so. Eating healthfully starts with eating real food, but it also comes down to preparation. 

The article continues, then discussing how the conception that people who eat wholesome food are healthier than the people who eat heavily processed food is inaccurate, and deduced based on an unfair and diverse test group, who are influenced by too many uncontrolled factors. 

"Some studies have shown that people who eat wholesomely tend to be healthier than people who live on fast food and other processed food (particularly meat), but the problem with such studies is obvious: substantial nondietary differences exist between these groups, such as propensity to exercise, smoking rates, air quality, access to health care, and much more."

And this is unfair because...? The relationship between eating healthy food and living a healthy lifestyle is intertwined. Yes, such a test group is too broad to control, but doesn't common sense fill the gap where the scientific method fails? You won't find many people who strive to find organic, free range chicken, who then go home from the supermarket and smoke a carton of cigarettes and drink themselves under the table. Similarly, you probably won't see someone who eats three bags of potato chips and a candy bar every day rush off to the gym. In other words, you really can't have one without the other. Eating healthy, wholesome food is simply the first step, and most critical step, in living a balanced and healthy lifestyle, and to separate the variables that make up a healthy lifestyle and claim that evidence is inconclusive because of that is yet another weak argument. The very DEFINITION of the word wholesome is "Conductive to sound health or well-being". How anyone can misconstrue this concept is beyond me. Besides, there is a reason the other food is called "junk food." 

So that's it then, right? Not exactly. After all, how could the article end without bringing to light the most classic and supposed trump card argument that people have to the wholesome food movement? The argument? Income, and the correlation between lower levels on income and the increase rates of obesity.

Firstly, let me say that I agree completely that there is a definite relationship between the two, and it is an ever increasing problem (it is kinda like digging your own grave, so to speak. Lower income generally means buying more unhealthy food, which then, in turn, will increase medical costs later down the road, only costing more money). However, where this argument (in this article's case,) falls short completely, is with the examples provided yet again.

"The most obvious problem with the “let them eat kale” philosophy of affluent wholesome-food advocates involves the price and availability of wholesome food. Even if Whole Foods, Real Food Daily, or the Farmhouse weren't three bus rides away for the working poor, and even if three ounces of Vegan Cheesy Salad Booster, a Sea Cake appetizer, and the vegetarian quiche weren't laden with fat and problem carbs, few among them would be likely to shell out $5.99, $9.95, or $16, respectively, for those pricey treats."

Back with the damned Vegan Cheesy Salad Booster eh? Sea Cake appetizer? Vegetarian Quiche? What is a relationship these products have I wonder, other than a ridiculous price tag and the fact that no one actually buys them? (Ever see anyone pay $16 dollars for a vegetarian quiche...probably not) The similarity: all three products are pre-made, finished products bought in store for immediate consumption. Naturally, this would increase price, and drive up the fat and caloric content so it would taste better.Once again, the whole point behind the wholefoods ideology has been missed completely.

The wholefood movement is not about driving twenty miles out into the boonies to buy free range chicken and organic produce (which some supermarkets offer anyways, for a fair price), or buying the fanciest and most expensive products so we feel good when we eat (like the quiche). Some foodies believe this is truly what should be the norm, but I am of the viewpoint that supermarkets offer more than enough choices for anyone to live healthfully, and it doesn't have to be hard, it just has to work. It also doesn't have to break the bank.

Actually buying ingredients and cooking from scratch would not only be wholesome, it would be cheaper too. Forget the kale, and the $9 smoothies, and the pre-made quiche, and instead take something like a can of beans, or a head of lettuce, and actually do something with it... or a box of pasta or whatever, you understand the point.

But wouldn't caloric content be an issue? For families looking to get the most "energy" out of their money, yes...and no. For example, buying a $25 special bucket of chicken from KFC, along with all the goodies like coleslaw and whatever it comes with, can stuff a family for hours or stretch for a meal or two, but couldn't wholesome food do the same thing? Rachael Ray and 30 minute meals is practically the epitome of such an idea, or Melissa d`Arabian's Ten Dollar Dinners, also. And it doesn't have to be complicated! They aren't making food for show, they are making food for a family, in an easy and affordable way.

Are there food deserts out there, where people do not have access to healthy ingredients? Of course, but not in such a way that makes healthful living impossible, and never to a degree where not a single piece of fruit or vegetable can be found. The problem lies within execution, say for example, taking collard greens and soaking them in butter as supposed to cooking them in a healthier way, which is most likely due to a lack of education. However, the problem for eating healthy foods is not cost, nor is it availability. No one is expecting a family to spend their entire food budget on fresh produce. Even for families with a limited food budget, healthy living can be obtained, through slow and gradual changes, the addition of fruits and vegetables, and also the reduction of unhealthy food item purchases. It isn't just about buying lots of the "good stuff," it's about not buying the "bad stuff" too. 

SO! What is the proposed fix? If, as the article claims, the wholefoods movement is a foolhardy and unrealistic idea concocted by the upper echelons of society, what can be done instead? How can changing the industrialized food world we live in (which is clearly not working currently), be the solution to the ongoing obesity crisis, and how can everyday people begin to change their lives and become healthier? Apparently, it is proposed that such a monumental task can be accomplished by using the already widespread and powerful infrastructure and capabilities of the fast-food and corporate food world. 

Essentially the plan (which is already being executed by some companies), is to take the favorite and unhealthy products that everyone loves and cherishes, and slowly, almost secretly, make healthier changes. McDonald's is a huge proponent of this, and let me just say: I love McDonald's like any other human being, and I respect them for spearheading this idea. The slight reduction of sodium, the changes in portion size, the addition of some wholewheat to certain buns...All of these are good things that are happening to the fast food world and menu at McDonald's. Other chains are doing this too, but the trend is the same. 

However, the idea of "trimming" the menu of fast food and reducing calories and fat while retaining taste has also veered into the wrong direction. Companies and consumers both want healthier options, it seems, but they don't really want to sacrifice anything for it. Price MUST remain the same, and TASTE must not change. Realistically, you cannot take fat, sugar, and salt out a product and expect there not to be a change in taste...Or so I thought. Yet again, the proposed solution to decreasing calories but maintaining taste just shocked me. 

We have always been tricked and fooled by food companies, in psychological and somewhat harmless ways really. There are chocolate bars right next to the checkout that make us buy them just as we leave a store, packaging is done in the color red which our brain associates with hunger, and even healthy, probiotic yogurt containers are made to be heavier at the bottom so our brain registers the product as being filling, and subsequently healthy for us. This is all part of the game of food marketing, and it is just like any other industry really. 

What is being proposed however, and what is already done, is to simply add chemicals, artificial flavors, and a plethora of other starches and ingredients to make food taste good. Missing fat? Add some chemical compounds, and it's no problem. Tricking the consumer has gone beyond simple packaging ploys, and now even the food we eat to try and remain healthy, is packed with the very chemicals we never wanted in our bodies in the first place. Below, David H. Freedman (the guy who wrote this unfortunate article), explains:

"I visited Fona International, a flavor-engineering company also outside Chicago, and learned that there are a battery of tricks for fooling and appeasing taste buds, which are prone to notice a lack of fat or sugar, or the presence of any of the various bitter, metallic, or otherwise unpleasant flavors that vegetables, fiber, complex carbs, and fat or sugar substitutes can impart to a food intended to appeal to junk-food eaters. Some 5,000 FDA-approved chemical compounds—which represent the base components of all known flavors—line the shelves that run alongside Fona’s huge labs. Armed with these ingredients and an array of state-of-the-art chemical-analysis and testing tools, Fona’s scientists and engineers can precisely control flavor perception."

A flavor-engineering company? So the plan is to make a product slightly healthier, and then pack it with crap? Very well done indeed. There is a place for this technology, such as adding organogels (my sister did work with this with a professor in University, too sciency for me though I just know they are natural and can take the place of some fat...Look it up yo), or other natural ingredients to improve taste. Even adding artificial flavors is fine, but it should not be the saving grace of food! Sure vanilla ice-cream tastes as good as it does because of artificial flavoring, and that is alright. It is fine to have vanilla ice-cream, in moderation. The problem I see is that we have been told that healthy food tastes bad, and that it must be "fixed" in order to be palatable. Not all our meals should taste like McDonald's, or radiate with the most powerful flavors known to man and waft their scent halfway down the street whenever the wind picks up. Simplicity is often the best, and healthy food does taste good if made right (which isn't even hard).

 And making good food should not become some type of magic trick. Sometimes companies simply go too far (in my opinion) with the games they play to try and make food perfect. I was at the grocery shop recently and discovered the mozzarella I like very much is packed with potato starch, among other starches. What is a potato doing in my cheese? I checked some of the other brands, and some of them were just cheese. While this is a promising sign that not every company has fallen prey to such tactics, there shouldn't even be such tactics in the first place. Keep food as simple as possible, and accept that not everything should taste like it was made in a restaurant. 

So what do farm fresh, animal loving, wholesome foodies generally have to say regarding the above arguments? What is the flip-side to this argument anyway? Well, in short, they (the foodie mass) want more family and local farms and the reduction of corporate power and monopoly, and for taxes on junk food or other forms of government intervention to fight the obesity crisis. For the most part, it is a very extreme, one directional argument, with seemingly little room for compromise. I am generalizing, and many wholesome foodies don't want all of these things, or only some of them, or for moderation, but in a nutshell that is basically the idea.

Now I personally think industry is great. The shows like How It's Made or Food Factory just fascinate me (as well as make me hungry). Also, on a more realistic note, with so many people on this earth there really is no other option for feeding everyone (something we still can't accomplish, sadly.) The idea that family farms can even remotely begin to even out with the sheer power and numbers of the industrialized food world is a naive hope, at best. Technology is here to stay, which is for the better, and the attitude of "going back to the old ways," needs to be dropped. There is a common idea that we should try to only eat foods that our grandmother would recognized. I don't know about other people and their grandmother, but mine surly has an arsenal of some rather unhealthy recipes (pies stuffed with cheese anyone? It is delicious!). Just because something is traditional, doesn't mean it is good for us. Besides, it's not like if you deep fry a free-range chicken it will magically be better than some fried chicken you buy from a store (although it may not have as many chemicals and additives . Preparation and education is key.

As for taxes on unhealthy foods and advertisement campaigns designed to advocate for healthy food choices over poor ones, it is a very slippery slope. Many people are of the mindset that the less the government interferes with the general public, the better, and food is definitely no exception to that idea. Bloomberg tried to battle the soft drink in New York, and was defeated very easily. Politicians are weary to tackle this issue, and any widespread advertisement campaign set on educating the masses  obviously needs financing, which is difficult to obtain. A "fat tax" has been proposed, (similar to the one that had been implemented in Denmark until it was announced a failure as people would simple shop across the border for unhealthy snacks), but that too is a very tough balancing act. Set the tax too high and lower income families would suffer and public outrage would surface, and set it too low and it will not be enough of a deterrent to prevent the purchasing of unhealthy food.

So what is left to fight the crisis? The way I see it, if we can't force healthy food upon people with legislation, and if unhealthy food is here to stay, then the only option is to actually make people want to eat wholesome food. Education in school systems is therefore key, because if we can't get new generations to have an understanding of how to live a balanced lifestyle, then there truly is no hope at all for ever fixing the growing societal problems. A few hours a year in the classroom discussing the food groups will not cut it, and neither will turning our back to this issue in hopes that it will disappear. Cooking is fun, and the fact that kids go through the education system without ever learning how to actually cook, save for a semester if they so choose to take a "foods class", is a true shame. 

What I really wanted to do with this entire blog post was firstly share my thoughts on the matter (new category for the blog: My Thoughts), but also share with whoever reads this the single most inspirational figurehead in this food revolution (in my opinion). Jamie Oliver, British chef who has tackled many issues through using the power of food, has his very own food revolution, aptly named Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. His work is just the thing that is needed, from fighting for food education in schools and improving cafeteria lunches, to teaching every day ordinary people how to cook healthy and filling food for their families. I highly recommend checking out the website here, and the television series featuring Jamie as he goes about his mission is well worth watching. 

Furthermore, I think everyone should be encouraged to share their thoughts on this matter with others, especially when it comes to sharing recipes or health tips. Striving to educate others only betters the community, and perhaps in time with enough discussion, some good can be found...perhaps even change.


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