Health & Food

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

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On Friday I posted a review of the book The United States of Arugula. Today I will be discussing this book:

** If I wanted to give a full review of this book I would probably take up ten posts worth of space. This post is not a review, but a summary of my thoughts about some of the topics brought up and candidly discussed in the book. Even this post is overly-simplified, but hopefully, you’ll read enough to entice you to read the book yourself. Specifically, Pollan’s discussion on the ethical issues involved with eating animals was very interesting, yet not discussed in this review.**

On Wednesday of last week, I presented some information from this book, along with information on navigating the grocery store, to a group of eighth-graders at a local middle school. They were in the middle of reading the children’s version of the book for class, which I thought was pretty fantastic.

This book really got me thinking. Since when do we need a label that told us that what we were buying is “REAL”? When did “real cheese” escape from our food supply? Apparently it’s been happening very slowly, right in front of us, but we just don’t seem to care.

At the beginning of my presentation to the eighth-graders, I talked about how years ago (the early 1900s through the mid-1950s, I would guess) dietitians worked in hospital kitchens, mainly feeding sick patients (including many men of war), and serving food to customers of the hospital. Flash forward 50 years and now one of the primary roles of dietitians is to help people develop healthier diets, learn how to navigate grocery stores, understand food labels, and understand the basic concepts of healthy eating. Omnivores eat both meat and plants and therefore have millions of different foods from which to choose for the thousands of meals they will eat in their lifetime. And in fact, this is “the omnivore’s dilemma” in a nutshell. Back in the early 1900s, people didn’t need RDs to tell them how to eat, because the food was so much less complicated! Now it takes an hour to decide which type of yogurt, bread, or multivitamin to buy.

Source: iStock Photo

Speaking of multivitamins, we didn’t even have these 70 years ago…so why the heck do we need them now?! If today we have access to the most healthy and nourishing foods, why are we fortifying our bodies with all of these extra vitamins, minerals, amino acids, antioxidants, etc? Have you ever thought that maybe that is the reason for the rise in cancer deaths? Just a thought…..

Source: iStock Photo

I presented to 8 different groups of eighth graders and I asked each group; “how many of you drink vitamin water?”. More than half of the students in each group raised their hands. The same was true, by the way, when I asked them if they drank Gatorade or Powerade. They were floored when I told them both drinks were really not as good for them as they had once thought. Check out this article to read more about teens and sports drink.

Further into my presentation I discussed some of the common myths about food and nutrition. First and foremost, high fructose corn syrup isn’t necessarily BAD for you, but like the book implied, it’s bad because it’s so cheap and easily accessible. American’s will eat more if given the opportunity (especially when the food is high fat and high sugar), and the corn industry has provided that opportunity to “get more for your money” and we’re taking advantage. I discussed how HFCS is the scapegoat, because in reality any form of “added sugar” can cause health disparities when consumed in excess amounts, but it just so happens that HFCS is so freaking cheap, therefore it’s found in just about every food (or at least some form of corn is found in every food….) therefore HFCS and corn are all of a sudden “the bad guys”. By the way, here are some of the things that corn is turned into:

Corn syrup

Maltodextrin

Ethanol

Lecethin

di- tri- and mono-glycerides

Dextrose

Vegetable shortening

Citric acid

I think I shocked the kids when I told them CORN is actually one of my favorite foods. Not necessarily the corn that is depicted so gruesomely in the book, but popcorn. Popcorn in it’s simplest form, not microwaveable popcorn, which has been chemically altered and loaded with butter and salt. Do I frown upon the microwaveable popcorn? Not at all. Do I eat it, and other processed foods, in moderation? Absolutely. If all Americans did this, maybe we wouldn’t have such an issue with obesity. But at the same time, as depicted in this book, if processed foods weren’t so cheap, and if corn wasn’t subsidized by our government, giving farmers more reason to produce more and more of it, maybe more American’s would start eating more natural foods.

Speaking of the word “Natural”, this word has been completely distorted in the past several years. You can buy a “natural” snack bar that contains some of the most unnatural ingredients; such as maltodextrin and lecithin (both are modified forms of corn, most often). As stated in the book, “Natural raspberry flavor doesn’t mean the flavor came from a raspberry; it may have been derived from corn, just not something synthetic” (Pollan). Check out Melinda’s post to read more about the term “Natural”, and how it’s a complete misnomer, or read my post, here. I told the kids to look for foods with the least amount of ingredients possible, rather than seeking out “healthy” words on labels. These days, that’s the only way you know you are getting something that is at least close to natural.

I actually brought a container of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream to show the kids that just because something has a label that says, “All Natural”, it doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Ironically that same night when I was on my computer I found this article about how Ben and Jerry’s must now remove their “All Natural” label, due to the presence some unnatural ingredients. Wow, I’m impressed! Let’s not stop there, ok? There are about ten thousand more products that seem to be misleading consumers by using this term.

Want all natural ice cream? Come to my kitchen!

What about organic? Surely our precious organic foods must be what they say. Right? Well yes. The term “organic” has a lot more meaning than the term “natural” and in fact the term “organic” is regulated. The sad thing is, however, “Even organic food has succumbed to the economic logic of processing” (Pollan), as you can now buy foods made with organic maltodextrin, corn starch, xantham gum; all of which are modified forms of corn, or other subsidized food crops.

“Organic agriculture has grown more successful, finding its way into the supermarket and the embrace of agribusiness, organic farming has increasingly come to resemble the industrial system it originally set out to replace…(Pollan)“

In regards to laws about organic foods: “The USDA listened to arguments on both sides and finally ruled that (organic) dairy cows must have “access to pasture”…. (Pollan) (as in, at some point during the day they are allowed to roam through the pasture, but most of the time it’s a very short period of time….oh boy! How kind.)

“Along with the national list of permissible synthetics [such as ascorbic acid and xantham gum], “access to pasture”, and for other organic animals, “access to the outdoors” indicate how the word “organic” has been stretched and twisted to admit the very sort of industrial practices for which it once offered a critique and alternative” (Pollan).

So here are some closing thoughts I pass on to YOU:

“These days, we need food scientists to feed us.” (Pollan)

Let’s at least try to be our own food scientists more often….

Don’t want to grow a garden? Let a local farmer do that for you, whenever possible.

“These days, 19% of American meals are eaten in the car.” (Pollan)

Let’s at least try to make those “in car meals/snacks” a bit more healthy, by planning ahead before going on trips, or even keeping healthy snacks in the car at all times, just in case. Fruits and veggies are always fabulous options.

Question: What’s one thing you will do today to bring yourself closer to the land, and further from the food scientists?

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