I did this for a class I just finished and thought it’d be fun to share, to see what people have to say about it. I’m no expert, but the research I found was pretty damning of processed and centralized agribusiness.
Defined nutrition and processing is hurting our diet.
“The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than has in the previous 10,000” (Food, Inc). Prior to the mechanization of the preparation of our foods, we ate whole foods. The standard for flavor, nutrition, and volume was largely determined not by a chart, formula or chemist, but by our ability to grow, kill or gather. Technology constantly advances, and at some point in the early 20th century, companies began to mass-produce less-nutritive foods. In the process of making foods able to not spoil for the time between manufacturing and purchase, the food changed. Flavors were muted by the processing, freezing and packaging. Initial products utilizing frozen technology were underwhelming (Hamilton 34). Then chemists became involved. The fast food revolution in the 50s and 60s fit right into the expansion of the population to the suburbs. No longer did bland frozen dinners have to be eaten on busy nights – now there was McDonald’s. What they didn’t tell us with their bright, happy advertising, though, is that the highly processed and regularized food they sell is vastly different than its whole food predecessor (Andrews). Defining what nutrition meant allowed companies to promote food as “healthy” if it fit several definitions, even if it was loaded with pure refined sugar and fat. The processing, chemical and fast food industries have taken advantage of the definition of parts of food, not the food as a whole, to sell less expensive, empty calorie laden food to an entire generation of kids who now thinks chicken nuggets are healthy because they contain all white meat (Sustainable).
Nutrition didn’t always have to be taught. Before the industrialization of our food supply, most meats and vegetables were what would be considered “Organic” now. Indeed, humans seem to have been primarily vegetarians going back millenia. A “need for a dietary supply of vitamin C and the presence of a colon, as a fermentation chamber, in the gut point to the fact that our early ancestors were herbivorous, and meat eating was believed to be opportunistic.” (Fairweather-Taitm 1713). Later, farmers grew crops on land that had been in their families for generations, using techniques passed down through the generations. Meat and dairy were not prevalent, but were available. Louis Pasteur’s techniques of pasteurization existed but were neither required nor widely used. The advent of electricity allowed for refrigeration, extending the life of all foods in their transport. No longer would an item have to be canned for extended life.
As society shifted away from the agrarian lifestyle, so did its diet. The jobs available to upwardly mobile families became more harried. The woman’s suffrage movement in the 20s brought many more parents into the workforce, taking time from families that used to be preparing food. With electricity’s spread came the ability to refrigerate in homes as well as the markets. Less time from parents for cooking spurred an entire frozen foods revolution. At first, it was a luxury item. To spread the good news about frozen food’s convenience and “quality” took marketing. In speaking about frozen foods, Hamilton writes, “In the early 1950s, contributors to industry trade journals began to stress the idea that their product was a critical provider of the ‘conveniences and economies of modern-day living.’ Based upon advanced technology, these commentators argued, frozen-food production would bring abundance to all Americans by giving consumers quality and convenience at a low price.” (Hamilton 43) Marketing changed from “products in plain red-and-white wrappers printed with only two lines of text: the type of food and an enormous ’19¢’ to indicate the product’s very low price” towards making customers feel special by buying the food (Hamilton 45). Companies began to see that they needed to market their products, rather than make the most natural or healthy.
Contrast this situation with Japan’s idea of fast food, the Ekiben. Comparing the ekiben to American fast food is a study in opposites. The ekiben “never could be characterized as a gastronomic atrocity of empty calories, provided in antiseptic settings by depersonalized service” (Noguchi 317). Ekibento are not mass-produced like western fast food, and as such vary by region and locale in Japan. They are “generally served cold, often with ocha (green tea)” and contain items such as Chinese pork dumplings, four kinds of rice, squid, and a variety of other locally appealing ingredients (Noguchi 319). Instead of trying to mollify their customers’ desire for uniqueness, the Japanese have enhanced it. Regional flavors abound in Ekibento, and ekiben are typically served in paper wrappers and boxes and change with the season, as well as world events (Noguchi 324).
The definitions of modern marketed foods prey on one concept: nutrition. To say something is healthy now, you have to define what healthy is, such that non-healthy foods can be discerned. Modern nutrient definitions came about in the 1930s with the discovery of approximately 40 essential nutrients. (Fairweather-Tait 1711) Later research showed the possible links of the lack of nutrients and health. Fairweather-Tait goes even further, suggesting “changes in diet are responsible, in part, for the diseases that have emerged as dominant health problems in industrialized countries over the past century.” (Fairweather-Tait 1714)
The linking of modern disease with nutrition allows the companies more concerned with their bottom line than the actual health of their customers to abuse the system. “It was in the 1980s that food began disappearing from the American supermarket, gradually to be replaced by ‘nutrients,’ which are not the same thing.” Foods were hard to define in neat terms, but nutrients – “those chemical compounds and minerals in foods that nutritionists have deemed important to health — gleamed with the promise of scientific certainty; eat more of the right ones, fewer of the wrong, and you would live longer and avoid chronic diseases. “ (Pollan) So now nutrient-rich foods could be marketed as healthy even if they also contained high amounts of sodium, saturated fat, or sugar. Even today, juice is marketed as “healthy” due to vitamin C or other nutrients, and typically has an ingredient near the top of its list: high fructose corn syrup. Babies grow up today on sugary sweet “juice”, adding hundreds of empty calories and setting them up for problems later in their lives.
When you focus on nutrients, you end up making highly processed foods, and processing removes flavor. Taking a whole food into its component parts changes them. These pieces that once blended for a unique flavor now are components with vastly different flavors. In order to keep costs down and profits up, fast food restaurants need food to last a long time, be easily prepared, and be highly desired – to taste great. The companies “add emulsifiers, preservatives, MSG, artificial colors, trans fats, and hidden ingredients under generic labels such as spices, or natural and artificial flavors. Some of these food additives are not foods at all, but are chemicals that are generally recognized as safe.” (Andrews) And it’s not even safe to buy fast or processed foods advertising their lack of specific chemicals. A company by the name of Senomyx is currently working with human embryonic kidney cells to produce flavors that “enhance the taste of naturally occurring glutamate and enable the reduction or elimination of added monosodium glutamate, or MSG.” (Stratton) What is notable is not that they are working to reduce the use of MSG, but the fact that they are using yet more chemicals to replace other chemicals.
Sustainable table makes the point about the difference between approval and safety in food additives. “Once approved by the FDA, food additives are considered fit for human consumption—but they may not be entirely safe. Some food and color additives have induced allergic reactions, while others have been linked to cancer, asthma, and birth defects. The FDA requires that all ingredients be listed on a food’s label, but additives are often listed without specificity, as “spices” or “flavorings,” making it impossible for consumers to determine what, exactly, they are eating.” (Sustainable) Meat and dairy are also modified from their natural state by irradiation, as well as being “injected with solutions of water, salt and chemicals to enhance flavor. A meat industry study in 2004 found that forty-five percent of pork, twenty-three percent of chicken, and sixteen percent of beef in U.S. retail stores had been injected with these solutions.” (Sustainable)
Equally as challenging to healthy, natural food is the centralization that has occurred in seed production and meat packing. “ In the 1970s, there were thousands of slaughterhouses producing the majority of beef sold. Today, we have only 13”. And because of the centralization of meat packing, most of the beef you eat, regardless of where you buy it, comes from the same few plants. (Food, Inc). This creates a situation where any contamination can quickly run rampant through the meat supply. To make matters worse, the number of food safety inspections has dramatically decreased. “ In 1972, the FDA conducted 50,000 food safety inspections. In 2006, the FDA conducted only 9,164” (Food, Inc). As recently as 2007, United Food Group recalled 5.7 million pounds of fresh and frozen meat possibly contaminated with E. coli bacteria. (A.P.)
Meat packing is not the only part of the food industry that has been changed by big business. Food and chemical giant Monsanto has single handedly gained ownership of a majority of the soybean seed market via a patent they were issued on a gene modification to the soybean. “In 1996 when it introduced Round-Up Ready Soybeans, Monsanto controlled only 2% of the U.S. soybean market. Now, over 90% of soybeans in the U.S. contain Monsanto’s patented gene” (Food, Inc). Due to no labeling laws on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), the average US consumer has no idea they are consuming a product whose majority consists of GMOs. (Food, Inc)
Are whole foods the answer? Forks Over Knives thinks so. In the movie, we follow Joey Aucoin, an admittedly overweight man, who works with vegetarian / vegan nutritionists to change his diet and remove meat and cheese. In the beginning of the movie, Aucoin is on no less than 9 medications for blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol. By the end of the study, Aucoin had not only lost weight, but was able to stop using all nine medications – a seemingly miraculous occurrence (Forks Over Knives). Several people with varying diseases from cancer to diabetes are also followed as they choose a vegan lifestyle. In each case, they are able to reduce or eliminate their daily use of drugs to control their chronic disease and report greater energy and health (Forks Over Knives).
Similarly, many other studies of unprocessed vs processed foods show promise or results in identifying likely causes or ability to reduce or eliminate disease when switching to whole food varieties. “At the end of the 19th century, British doctors were puzzled by the fact that Chinese laborers in the Malay states were dying of a disease called beriberi, which didn’t seem to afflict Tamils or native Malays. The mystery was solved when someone pointed out that the Chinese ate “polished,” or white, rice, while the others ate rice that hadn’t been mechanically milled. A few years later, Casimir Funk, a Polish chemist, discovered the “essential nutrient” in rice husks that protected against beriberi” (Pollan). This may be seen as the beginning of problems with processed foods. As early as the 1970s, a Senate Committee on Nutrition found that “while rates of coronary heart disease had soared in America since World War II, other cultures that consumed traditional diets based largely on plants had strikingly low rates of chronic disease. Epidemiologists also had observed that in America during the war years, when meat and dairy products were strictly rationed, the rate of heart disease temporarily plummeted” (Pollan).
Lacking modern science and equipment, our ancestors ate whole foods. As recently as 100 years ago, we ate predominantly whole foods. Our meat and dairy and vegetables weren’t loaded with chemicals to preserve them, they weren’t loaded with chemicals to enhance their flavor and they weren’t loaded with chemicals to increase nutrients. The rise of fast food, frozen foods, and heavily processed “junk” foods, when combined with the advent of quantifiable nutrient lists, has created the perfect storm of bad foods marketed and labeled in misleading ways, purely for reasons of profit. Huge multinational agribusiness has taken over enormous swaths of our food chain, ensuring a highly regularized and very unnatural product is the result. Profits are king in these businesses, and if we allow them to continue to define and fill our store shelves with processed foods which increase their profits but may not be safe, we can be sure that modern diseases such as diabetes and cancer will continue their meteoric rise. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “I have two great enemies, the Southern Army in front of me and the Bankers in the rear. Of the two, the one at my rear is my greatest foe.. corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money powers of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in the hands of a few, and the Republic is destroyed.” The way to fix childhood obesity, coronary artery disease and cancer isn’t better nutrition and additives – it’s better, more natural, more complete, whole food.
Andrews, John. “Surprise Ingredients in Fast Food.” NaturalNews.com. N.p., 03 Nov 2007. Web. 11 Aug 2011.
Associated Press. “Supplier Expands Beef Recall Over Concerns of E. Coli Contamination”. The Associated Press. The New York Times. 10 June, 2007. Web. 26 August, 2011.
Fairweather-Tait, Susan J. “Human Nutrition and Food Research: Opportunities and Challenges in the Post-Genomic Era”. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 358.1438 (2003):1709-1727.Web. 20 Aug 2011.
Food, Inc. Dir. Rovert Kenner. Perf. Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and Gary Hirshberg. Magnolia Pictures, 2008. Film.
Forks over Knives. Dir. Lee Fulkerson. Perf. Joey Aucoin, Neal Barnard and Gene Baur. Monica Beach Media, 2011. Film.
Hamilton, Shane. “The Economies and Conveniences of Modern-Day Living: Frozen Foods and Mass Marketing, 1945-1965.” Business History Review 77.1 (2003): 33-60. Web. 11 Aug 2011.
Hoguchi, Paul H. “Savor Slowly: Ekiben: The Fast Food of High-Speed Japan.” Ethnology 33.4 (1994): 317-330. Web. 11 Aug 2011.
Pollan, Michael. “Unhappy Meals.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 28 Jan 2007. Web. 12 Aug 2011.
Stratton, Lynn. “Is it Real, Or Is it Senomyx? How New Flavor Technology Tinkers with Our Tastebuds.” For Your Mind, Body and Soul: Healthy Holistic Living. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Aug 2011.
“the issues: additives.” sustainable table. N.p., Sep 2009. Web. 12 Aug 2011.
Sometimes writing about a topic is hard, regardless of your passion for it. Right now is one of those times. I just, a week and a half ago, moved to the Riverside area – a place I’ve wanted to be for many years. It wasn’t an easy decision, and it will take some getting used to, but tonight made part of the reasons why I want to be here real.
When I was in suburbia, there aren’t breezes. There aren’t open spaces. There aren’t park benches – at least not like the park benches here. I live near 5 points in an apartment complex on the river, and tonight I left my apartment to walk to get my mail, needing some air. And boy did I get it! For whatever fantastic reasons, there is a blustering wind coming off the river on the perimeter of the property. The sky is half full of high slate gray clouds. The river is churning and occasionally spray from it laps over the wall beneath the railing. I sat on a bench near the rails and just listened to the rustling of the strong breeze through the palm trees and oak trees around the property. I closed my eyes and took in the sounds, and immediately noticed there were waves of temperate air, one warmer, one cooler. These waves flowed around me like a single rock in the ocean. I stood up, walked to the rail, and took in the sights. Across the river, I see patches of light from the Navy base. To my left is downtown and its bright lights, to my right is Riverside and inland more, Avondale. The railing vibrates from the wind briskly flowing through a hundred bars on either side of me. More spray gently and barely reaches me. I begin to smile because right there, right then is exactly what I want, where I want to be. The seemingly vastness of water ahead of me washes away the hustle and bustle of the week which now seems as distant as the stars that peak through the clouds.
Reluctantly, I leave to go get my mail, and back to my place to finish this paper I’m now ready to write. I’ve been given a reason to finish it, you see. And that reason still reverberates through my ears, even as I am inside now. It’s to be back in that place on the river, where time stands still in moments like these, where everything is right, until I eventually must retire.
And wish again for the breezes to return.