Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Garbage In, Garbage Out

There are so many factors that affect our health; some beyond our control. Some would say what we eat is completely within our control. Unfortunately, that's not the case. I'll explain why and give a few suggestions on what you can do to make your food a little healthier.

The first step is to eat as much real food as you can. I'm not just talking about Twinkies vs. apples. (Though you may want to rethink eating something that's expected to survive a nuclear attack.) Most of the food in your grocery store isn't food at all. It isn't grown on a farm or raised in a pasture. It's made in a factory. I know it's cheap. I know it's convenient. But any money you save when buying faux food is almost always lost to medical bills. Our bodies just aren't made to live on chemicals with a vitamin thrown in here and there. If the package says the product is "enriched", that's a red flag. You never see anything in the produce section claiming to be "enriched". That's because produce "as part of a balanced diet" (as many products like to proclaim) is perfect just the way it is. Naturally. Messing with nature never ends well. Never.

As for convenience, there are solutions to that, too. However, if you just hate to cook, I really have no suggestions. Because eating real food involves actual cooking. (Unless you're a raw foodist, but I digress.) There are ways to make it faster and easier, though. Find a couple of good cookbooks. I have one that I absolutely love. How to Cook Absolutely Everything by Mark Bittman. And he ain't kidding. Aside from telling you how to cook everything from chicken stock to brownies, he has hundreds of recipes that take 30 minutes or less to fix. He believes that everyone can cook real, healthy food and he proceeds to tell you how in detail. (Not everyone will, of course. And I said "healthy" food, as in from real ingredients, not "health" food as in tofu... which is actually a topic for another post, but it'll wait.) Obviously you don't want to eat brownies and cookies every night, but they really do taste better when you cook them yourself and know exactly what your family is eating. I'm sure there are similar cookbooks out there; when I find them, I'll share them with you. Just beware of cookbooks that use faux food as ingredients. (Like Cream of Anything soup...Campbell's originated those types of recipes to manufacture a market for their soups.)

Next, be aware of where your food comes from. I watched Food, Inc and while I had heard most of the information in bits and pieces, it was very eye-opening to see where our food comes from these days. I really encourage you to watch the film yourself. Even if you feel, as my husband does, that there is nothing you can do about it, so why have those images in your head? Because you can do more than you think. The meat you buy at the grocery store and at the fast food restaurant doesn't come from animals raised on a farm. The animals are raised in crowded, unsanitary feed lots (or in the case of chickens, crowded, unsanitary, windowless chicken houses). They're fed the cheapest thing possible, which is usually corn. ALL the animals are fed corn. Even cows, who are made to eat grass. They can't digest corn properly, which is what led to the lovely E. coli O157:H7 bacteria. It literally didn't exist before the widespread feeding of corn to cattle. And it doesn't take much to cause a problem. In the 70’s there 1,000’s of slaughter houses in the US. Now there are 13 slaughter houses where almost all our food comes from. One hamburger will be made from the meat of thousands of cows, so one bad “apple” literally can ruin the whole bunch.

Even when the USDA makes an attempt to regulate, they run into obstacles. In 1998, the USDA implemented testing for salmonella & Ecoli. The idea was that if a plant repeatedly failed the tests, the USDA would shut them down. Courts ruled that the USDA couldn’t do that. So who’s protecting us? If cows were taken off their corn diets and fed grass, within 5 days, they would shed 80% of the E. coli bacteria. But the industry isn’t willing to do that. Instead, they use an ammonia bath to clean the meat.

Did you ever stop to wonder how Tyson and the other chicken companies make all those chickens the same size? Or did you just assume that maybe they do something else with those that aren't a certain size. Cut them up into those legs or breasts, maybe. The truth is that scientists have figured out how to manufacture chickens. Because of the "great scientific breakthroughs" chickens are now slaughtered at half the age they were 50 years ago, but they weigh twice as much. Because people like breasts, chickens have been redesigned to have bigger breasts. They have been engineered so every chicken in every chicken house grows to almost exactly the same size.

The pork industry isn't any better. The Smithfield pork plant in Tar Heel, NC is the largest slaughterhouse in the world. Even being located in an economically depressed area, they have to bus workers in from a 100-mile radius because of the atrocious working conditions. They’ve already run through all the local workers who are willing to work there. If they don’t care about the workers – who are handling your food – what makes you think they care about how clean your food is?

And of course, we all know about the pesticides on the produce.

While there are ways to reduce food costs, like planting your own food or buying at a Farmer’s Market, they’re not available to everyone. Many people have to choose between buying a little bit of healthy food or buying enough food to feed their family – even if it means buying junk. The biggest predictor of obesity is income level. Many people have to choose between paying for medication or buying healthy food. If we would spend more on healthy food early on, when we’re still able, the cost of food would be offset by lower medical expenses. Yes, that may be over-simplifying in some cases, but think about how much more disposable income you had before you started a family. Now think about how much you spent on eating out or buying junk food at the grocery store. Now look at your current health. If you've been eating junk all your life and you're still healthy, congratulations. Really. You're one of the few. Most of us have abused our bodies for years and we're paying the price now.

The current industrial food system is not working and it’s getting worse. The ultimate answer is changing laws and regulations. The way we get there is buying organic when you can, buying locally grown when you can, buying 100% grass-fed beef and farm-raised chickens when you can. If you can’t, do the best you can with what you have. Just being aware is the first step.

Companies are paying attention and they’re going to follow the money. Every time you buy healthy food, not only are you improving your health, but you’re telling manufacturers, farmers and the government that you want real food.

We’ve become a culture who is disconnected from the origins of our food. Chicken doesn’t come “from the grocery store.” It started out somewhere else. Most likely someplace you would prefer to never see..


Deanna said...

It is indeed more expensive to buy organic meat and produce, but much of that cost can be offset in a variety of ways. For some families, merely eliminating pop and packaged junk food (like Twinkies) frees up a substantial amount of money. And things like rice, beans, and seasonal produce are relatively inexpensive. Cutting down on meat can save a lot of money or allow you to purchase the more expensive organic and humanely raised meat. That's the route we've taken. We eat vegetarian at least 90% of the time so I feel we can afford to buy the *good stuff* when we do eat meat.

In addition, cooking from scratch usually results in a savings as well as better nutrition. I always suggest that people take it slowly and learn to make one "from scratch" item at a time, practice until it is second nature and then take on another one.

Amanda said...

Excellent suggestion, Deanna! That's a great way to make a new experience less overwhelming! I tend to just jump in, so that didn't even occur to me. ;-)