The Silence of the Yams: what is food nowadays?

Holy bejeebus, let me just start by saying I’ve just being checking out the website this is why you’re fat and, although I’ve probably indulged in similar heart attack-inducing items in the past (gulp!), lets just be clear… not ‘food’ people. Not. At. All.

I try to do most of my shopping at farmers markets these days, for various reasons. Not least of all because of the fact that without my glasses on, supermarkets form kind of a hazy, crazy maze of bright lights and eye-popping coloured packages, most of which I can’t read anyway! But mostly because I feel great about being able to talk to the market providores about where my food has actually come from and how it was raised in the case of animal products. Plus the produce is of a much higher quality and yet still manages to be so much cheaper – who knew?! So, as much as I try to avoid the dreaded supermarket visit, occasionally I still find myself lined up at the self-serve checkout, ogling what other people put in their trolleys. I’ve been pretty shocked!

The whole experience has got me thinking about what constitutes a ‘food’. Might sound simple, but let me explain.

I believe that there are so many steps you can take to lift your health to a higher level through diet. And, as I’ve said before, I really do think that each individual can achieve fantastic results just by going one small step above and beyond what they are eating now. For example for the consumer of lots of mainstream meats, processed soy and corn products, it might just mean simply cutting the crap a little so to speak, and introducing some fresh produce into the diet. For someone on a whole-foods plant-based diet on the other hand, it might mean stepping it up a notch and buying exclusively organic produce, focusing on ideal humans foods or perhaps taking a ‘raw-till-dinner’ approach. But the major strategy anyone can implement for better health is to eat a diet of real ‘foods’. From that point on, it’s all just about relatively minor tweaks and improvements to attain a suitable level of dietary health for the individual.

What was available for us to eat say, circa 1900, pretty much all came under the umbrella of real ‘food’. At this time, pretty much everyone was a ‘locavore’ (small farms were spread out all over the country, including the bigger cities), there was no snack food, no frozen food, things like margarine hadn’t been dreamt up and there were no restaurant chains – people for the most part cooked and ate at home. There were no vitamins, no health claims, no marketing, no national brands. Nobody claimed to be anything or put a label upon what kind of diet they adhered to. Fats, carbohydrates, proteins – they weren’t good or bad. They were just ‘food’. There was no philosophy about food; people just ate.

From around the 30’s, with the development of things like refrigerated trucks and better roadways, fresh food was able to travel further. Agricultural hubs developed and with that areas of smaller agriculture because suburbanized and family farms died. The amount of food being produced in these hubs increased as farmers strove to squeeze out as much yield as possible with little thought for the land. Of course this became too much to ship fresh so canned and frozen products began to be highly marketed. Meat was everywhere (while the world’s human population doubled between 1950 and 2000, meat consumption went up five fold), but the new generations of livestock were not fed their natural diet of grass, rather they were fed corn and soy, and then on top of that were given noxious cocktails of drugs to keep them alive on this new diet. With the collaboration between agribusiness and government, soy, corn, cattle and chicken became industry dominants.

Fast track to today and you’ve suddenly got a nation of consumers hooked on convenience: fast-food, pre-packaged items, canned and frozen food. Soy and corn are found in pretty much every ‘food product’ you can get your hands on. Plus, these items are industrially produced. Our whole culture of eating has changed. Foods are now ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and most people will tell you that they eat some way or another, be it ‘low-carb’, ‘low-fat’, ‘high-protein’, ‘vegan’, ‘vegetarian’, ‘flexitarian’ etc. With the labels on our food came the rise of labels given to our eating habits.

Here I think we have to point out the difference between what now constitutes a ‘food’ and what can be classed as a ‘food product’ . Food grows and dies; it shouldn’t be created and manufactured. There is not much ‘food’ to be found at your local supermarket, apart from perhaps that sitting quietly in the produce section. However there are ‘food products’ masquerading as food to be found in abundance, often emblazoned with various health claims and promises.

“Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related rule of thumb: if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.” ~ Michael Pollan, Unhappy Meals

Of course, most people with some interest in whole foods and health will know this already. What really irks me is the trap of the ‘health foods’, ie those with labels touting multitudes of nutritional benefits. Arguably, real food doesn’t need a label, nor outlandish health claims. Kelloggs can boast about its brand-new high-fibre, low-fat, heart healthy cereal, but in reality you’re better just reaching for the silently humble sweet potato. Health claims have become compromised and highly misleading – keep in mind that the official parties giving these food products their tick of approval are paid by food makers for their endorsement.

“I believe that health should not be shrouded in mystery or used to lure people to buy useless products. The “wellness” market continues to take advantage of health-seekers, and the health information highways are just saturated with absurdities… I stopped being shocked by all the deceptions a long time ago, but it is worth reminding you that all these ‘miracle’ powders, supplements, prepackaged juices, and the like are all useless.” ~ Natalia Rose

I think it’s wonderful that there seems to be a rise again in the selection of foods that are organic, free-range, pastured, local, unprocessed, ethical and the like. However, there are still issues with making choices by one or more of these labels because of how our whole food system works. Can farm-raised salmon be classified as ‘organic’ when it is not fed its natural diet? Even when the feed is certified organic? And the fish are packed tightly into pens swimming in their own filth? Plus, this salmon then travels great distances, usually packed in Styrofoam, to where is will later be consumed. Is this really organic in spirit, or just in letter?

The way we eat should be about cultivating our relationship with the natural world, and this cannot possibly be the case when we are eating food products manufactured in such a way as are industrial plastics. Even the most ‘natural’ foods today are often genetically modified organisms, raised with the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Agricultural practices do not farm by way of nature, they are not sustainable in the long-run, and have resulted in much of even our real ‘food’ retaining little of its potential nutritional value as soil quality overall has been diminished (quite possibly for good at the rate we are going). Anyway, I’m going off topic here and I feel like proper plant and animal agriculture requires a whole chapter of its own, while the nature of this post was to point out the processed, industrial nature of our diets today mainly in regards to the consumption of ‘food products’ and lack of ‘food’.

It’s tricky to know how to do right when food culture has become so far flung from what would benefit both our own health and that of the natural world. Some would argue that without modern food processing methods, not all people would have access to food (and of course not all people are fed adequately). Sadly, many of the simpler, more sustainable ways to preserve food, farm locally and more naturally have lost out to industrialization of agriculture, money-driven production and marketing of food, and populations conditioned to think that food should first and foremost be fast and cheap.

I try to eat simple foods in simple combinations, avoid packages and blatant health claims, eat locally as much as possible as well as seasonally, spend more time in the kitchen and put a little love into the meals I cook (and cook! that’s a big one). It try to find out where my food has come from and how it was raised, tune out the dieting clichés, health fads and food pyramid-ist dictums and go by what feels right for my body as much as possible. These are all just rules of thumb, not hard and fast doctrines that I live by, and inevitably I fail to subscribe to these ideas in practice on some accounts.

I don’t know what the answer is to this health conundrum that we face today. But it’s all food for thought, no?

This entry was posted in agriculture, nutritional value, produce, real food, sustainability. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Silence of the Yams: what is food nowadays?

  1. Well said post. I agree with you in that most people are looking for convenience even if it means eating ‘non-real’ food. That saddens me. I wish people cared more about what they are eating and what companies they are supporting. I think supporting local companies especially farmers is a great approach. I love shopping at my farmers markets 🙂
    Seeing what food meant to people back then to compared to now is definitely food for thought!! And I wish more people discussed it more with family and friends. I think more people need to be constantly educated about their food choices.

    Sorry for the little rant 😉 Good topic!

  2. Linda says:

    Love the blog, doll! Food combing, juicing, colonics….you’re speakin’ my language!!
    Keep it the great work!


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