So the next part of my dive into our food system is about processed and fast foods. We’ve all heard things about fast foo
d in particular: it’s bad for you and will make you fat (Supersize Me), the animals they use are treated horrendously (Food, Inc), and that if you eat it, your kids will eat it and all of you will get clogged arteries and type II diabetes and DIE (mean girls, anyone?). The things we hear about processed foods are mixed. Take protein bars before/after workouts, eat it as a meal replacement/to lose weight,
don’t eat it if it has HFCS, this one has whole grains, this one is loaded in fiber, don’t eat it at all. So many mixed messages!
While I’m not saying that any of that isn’t true (although I’m not too sure about at least one of them), there’s a lot more to the picture than what we see at first. Fast food is a major global food industry, and the processed foods industry has exploded in the last decade or so.
Beyond the health claims are some underlying issues: the effects of processed foods’ labels in the continuation of our nutritionist thinking, the industrialization of our food, and the impacts of fast food on international growers and the economy. Let’s take it one at a time.
We’ve all heard it before: eat fewer saturated fats, more complex carbohydrates, and be wary of too much protein. Get more antioxidants, and as you age, you’ll need more calcium. These are all statements that use the nutritionist way of thinking. That means that we’ve broken down our food scientifically, into nuts and bolts like carbs and protein and fat. That makes it easier for producers to advertise their health claims. 5 grams of fiber in every bar! Low-fat version!
But don’t you get confused? I definitely do. Especially with all the different health warnings and recommendations. Am I supposed to go for low-fat, or go not-as-low-fat for its satiation properties? Do I go for carbs because they’re the base of our energy system, or avoid them because they clog up my system? Do I eat eggs for their protein and folic acid and other nutrients, or avoid them because of the saturated fat? AHHHHHH!!!! How people eat anything, I don’t know. I guess that’s why Michael Pollan wrote his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. We have SO many choices, and SO many people telling us what to do, that we have no idea what to do.
The alternative to the nutritionist way of thinking if to think of the food as a unit. The whole is equal to more than the sum of its parts. There’re things in the foods that we’re not seeing. So eating an apple isn’t the same as getting fiber, vitamins, etc. So then how do we know that we’re getting enough protein, and fiber in our meals?
But you see, that’s still nutritionist thinking. Basically the alternative is to ditch all of that, and eat what you want. The different diets (paleo, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, etc) may help in that they widen the range of foods we eat, even as they limit them. If you can’t eat meat, you’re more likely to eat a wider variety of vegetables, fruits, and grains. I guess the way to eat then, would be to eat what you like in moderation, and to get a bit of a lot of different things to get a balanced diet. I mean, that sounds easier, right?
Industrializing our food
Remember the industrial revolution? We learned that one person can do the same little assembly part over and over again, and it’ll get more products out. It was really nice– it was convenient, cheaper, and more efficient. Well, our food is kind of getting that way. And it’s not just the huge factories that churn out a lot of food every day.
One rather overlooked example is our own grocery store. We know how it works: go in, grab a cart, go to the aisles and grab what you want. But it wasn’t always like that. We used to get help from store clerks. They knew the produce, what was good, what wasn’t. They helped us get vegetables and meat and staples. But then the modern grocery store came around, and the first one was like a little IKEA. the lanes organized so that you go through all of it in snaking aisles, and the clerks were re-assigned to be checkout clerks only, and strictly forbidden from helping the customers. Now, we have so many choices, and companies devote themselves to predicting where our eyes will land so they know what to put there to make us buy it.
The modern grocery store gave us more choice, we think of it as more convenient and liberating, and the stores don’t have to hire skilled store clerks. win-win-win. Huh. But I don’t know. I think I’d like a little help in the aisles. As it is, I can spend hours in the store, poring over which loaf of bread is better, which peanut butter, which jam. And after all that, I just want to hand over my money and have my pb&j, gosh darnit!
McDonald’s is also a great example of how our food system is becoming simpler and more industrialized. Put together frozen burgers and fries to be cooked at the individual stores. You get uniformity, and simplicity. And it was cheap and convenient for us. It still is. We can pick up frozen meals or nutrition bars or anything at the store that’s all ready-to-cook. Americans as a whole spend about ten percent of their income on food. Countries elsewhere spend about thirty percent on food. And we wonder why theirs can taste so much better. It definitely wasn’t grown in the grocery store.
We have all of these convenient and cheap options, but we also are losing sight of what’s in our food. How was it made, where did it come from?
Given how convenient all our food is now, is it worth it?
While the greatest impact on me as a consumer is that I have to spend a long time in the store reading labels, and that I get the same burger here as there, the fast food industry has a large international presence. When you consider that many of the nation’s farmers grow corn to feed chickens and cows for the fast food industry, and that a simple change in the McDonald’s menu can mean overhauling farmer’s crops.
Fast food doesn’t just hold our nation’s crops in its grip. It also has impacts overseas. We take the dollar menu for granted, but food really isn’t that cheap. So how does it happen? We import our food from overseas, where land is cheaper. I’m not totally sure how this works, but I do know about other things with overseas farming.
For example, China (and other large crowded countries) are buying land rights in places like Africa, where the land is cheap and sold by the government. But that means that the people who worked the land for their food, people who didn’t own the land rights, but depended on it, are displaced by it and are forced into the cities to make a living for their families. But there’s still no work in the cities, and they end up in slums.
This kind of farmer displacement happens pretty frequently, even in the US, though by different means. In the US, success of the farm is now based on yield, and farmers grow crops that they’re tied to, crops that’re heavily subsidized by the government (like corn and soy). But that’s getting into another issue.
Basically, 1. we’re over-analyzing our food and relying too heavily on the breakdown of it.
2. We’re getting displaced from our food, knowing less about it, but given more choices.
3. Our quick and cheap food doesn’t only concern ourselves. As part of such a globalized economy, our food has also gone international, and the side-effects of that affect them more than us.
Next time: Genetically Modified Food
PS: sorry about the totally random stock photos. It looked to text-heavy so I threw them in.