“The truth is so often the reverse of what has been told to us by our culture that we cannot turn our heads far enough around to see it.” Howard Zinn
Change is a norm we have come to accept and, within the food industry, change is the lifeblood of profit growth. For growth to continue, the foods we consider healthy, and therefore the foods we most often buy, must change frequently. Put another way, there’s great pressure within the food industry for novelty. New products give food manufacturers a competitive edge and bring in greater profits.
Consider some of the popular “health foods” we are told we need: energy drinks; soy milk and soy yogurt; power bars; probiotic-enriched products; tofu; sugar-free and fat-free foods; tea drinks; butter and egg substitutes; processed “organic” foods; and vegetable oils. There are also popular health fads like vegan diets, carbohydrate elimination, and detox regimes.
Reading these examples, you may understandably feel some surprise. But can you see how all of them, the foods and the fads, have been manufactured to replace something real? Can you see how they are all touted to reduce something: weight or cholesterol, hunger or cancer? We are told that eating this way will nourish us and make us look and feel better. We are told there is virtue in making choices like these. If only we believe, if only we agree to open our wallets.
William Coperthwaite wrote these good words:
“Under pressure of marketing…, the average person has little chance of choosing sensibly. The only alternative seems to be to become very self-conscious about food. By this means some few people learn to live healthily, while a great many others go to extremes–all carrot juice, or no bread, or all brown rice and no dairy products.”
If you truly enjoy the sort of food products listed above, then by all means purchase and enjoy them. But if you consume them because you feel you must, because you believe they will move you toward good health or keep you there, feel no regret about passing them over.
Fad foods are the storms of our time. They blow in, create excitement, and stir up energy in the marketplace. And we take cover beneath food choices and rituals that make us feel we’re responding, that give us some sense of being in control, but these choices and rituals leave us with thinner wallets and without a corresponding increase in vitality.
Overwhelmed by marketing messages, we have lost our familiarity with real food and, as we have, it is left to us to figure out what constitutes a nourishing diet. Yet it is impossible for us to know how to eat well without knowing something about the food traditions of the past. While not all of these traditions were good ones, looking back is a way of gaining perspective and avoiding the fads of today: the value-added product fads, the weight-loss fads, the health-nut fads, the measure-every-vitamin-and-calorie fad. To quote the late historian and intellectual Tony Judt:
“We have abandoned not just the practices of the past–this is normal enough and not so very alarming–but their very memory. A world just recently lost is already half forgotten.”
Try, if you can, to remember that our physically-active ancestors ate butter, chicken fat, egg yolks, meat, and full-fat dairy products–all foods that top our “forbidden” list–to no ill consequence. On the contrary, our rates of chronic disease and obesity have soared since we left these foods behind and replaced them with manufactured substitutes, and the correlation is not likely a coincidence. In part, what made these foods different from the products that are marketed to us today is how the animals they came from were cared for and what foods they ate. There is also the way the land was cared for and how these foods were prepared.
There are people who would have you believe that issues of food and health require a complicated, technical response, and that you need a scientist to tell you what to eat; but take a closer look and you’ll see that they all stand to make money by having you believe this. Among nutritionists and physicians who are paying attention, there is a general consensus that corresponds with common sense. And, while they may differ on nuance, their overall message is consistent: Eat real food, food that doesn’t change.
You know food is real if you can identify its source and feel confident about what it contains. Real food has no hidden ingredients. It comes mainly from the perimeter of the grocery store and not as much from the middle aisles. Real food can also come from co-ops, farmers’ markets and community-supported gardens. It’s food your great-grandparents would recognize and know how to farm, and can generally include meat, fish, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruits, eggs, olive oil, animal fats, whole milk, cream and butter. Real food is also farmed without pesticides and is free from genetic modification, as it has been for nearly all of human history until very recent times. And it is best prepared using traditional cooking methods: a saute pan, a pot, a real oven.
Doing what a profit-driven food industry tells us to do–deciding what to buy and eat based on their advertisements and marketing campaigns–gives us little credit for deciding for ourselves. It denies us the fun of developing our own ideas, and the stimulation and pleasure of figuring things out, of listening to our bodies, and of adjusting until we get it right. There are few food experts who, no matter how sensible or wise, can figure food out for us.
If you need help finding sources of real food for yourself, have a look at some of these links:
For local, wild-caught fish, visit your local farmers’ market from spring through fall. For high-quality wild fish and seafood, much of it kosher, try Vital Choice.
For milk, cream, cheese and butter straight from a local farm to you.
For kosher, organic, grass-fed dairy products.
For heirloom whole grains and organic flours grown and freshly milled in the mid-Atlantic.
For a wide selection of real natural foods
For fine or coarse sea salt.
Copyright Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul