Earlier this week I found myself standing in a temple of the artificial. Oh, it all began as something else, but it had been deconstructed and reconstructed to become something new, like a gigantic Lego set. Just torn down and rebuilt again and again to create more and more interesting and creative things. Earlier this week I found myself standing in my local grocery store.
In recent years the tsunami of artificial food has become a perfect storm of processed foods, brightly colored packaging, and marketing gimmicks all geared to produce the highest sales and the greatest convenience. This week I want to take a moment to discuss this tsunami and encourage you to know what you are eating. As a chef, I believe that it is critically important to know and understand where our food comes from.
As a major proponent of Choice, I wouldn’t dream of trying to tell you how or what to eat, or even that one food is better than the next. However, I feel that it is vital to have as much information as possible so as to make the most informed decision. Choice isn’t a choice when it is colored by marketing and propaganda designed to influence your buying decision.
At one point this week, I found myself standing in my kitchen at 3am eating a bowl of a classic American breakfast cereal: Trix. With nothing better to do, I did what every Dad does when eating his five year olds cereal, I read the box. I got the rabbit through the maze, found all the hidden treasures, and even managed to unscramble the words to discover the secret message. With a half a bowl remaining, I turned the box and started taking a look at the ingredients list.
To my surprise, I found that about 85% of the cereal was corn, disassembled and reconstructed into little balls that tasted vaguely of some kind of fruit that can’t ever really be identified. At this point I went to the cupboard and pulled out another box, and then another. Then I just started grabbing random items and checking the ingredients list…all corn.
In a world where government subsidies abound for the cheap, easy to produce grass and where genetic modifications make it even easier to produce it is no wonder that it is so plentiful. At this point, the United States produces more corn than it can use. So, in response we have been forced to create new and unusual ways to use that golden kernel of wonder.
We strip it down and extract its fructose, mill it into a powder to be reshaped and reconstituted to begin life anew as another, more desirable food product, we even turn it into alcohol and coax it into our cars. However, perhaps the most ingenious use of the plant is feeding it to livestock, coaxing it to our meat as well.
If you are even a moderately aware eater, then I am not telling you anything new. You shouldn’t be surprised or shocked by this. However, when one walks into a grocery store and realizes that the majority of the products offered to us are simply reconstructions of the same plant; one is forced to take a closer look, to see just how deep it goes.
I did this by reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollen, which should be required reading for anyone that eats. Pollen uses the book as a platform to explore where our food comes from and how it gets to us. For a chef so heavily invested in the world of food, it was an eye-opening experience for me.
The book helped me to realize just how much of our food is the result of genetic engineered corn produced at an astounding rate. The corn is modified so that the plants can grow closer together without becoming root bound, meaning that more bushels of corn can be produced per acre of land. That corn is then processed into various food components. It is surprise to learn that ingredients listed that seem to have absolutely nothing to do with corn are actually corn products.
This kind of monoculture in agriculture, the production of a single variety on any given land, is creating a monoculture in our diet. That bowl of Trix that I ate was so high in processed corn products that I might as well have just been eating straight corn. This, in my mind, comes down to the ‘too much of a good thing’ philosophy. We are consuming so much corn in our diets, via processed corn products, that we are becoming deficient in other things.
I am no expert on the human body or the effects of eating just one item, but it seems to me that eating nothing but corn with a few other chemicals thrown in can’t be healthy. More than that, as a chef, it just isn’t entertaining.
There is a cornucopia of foods out there for us to enjoy, just loaded with all the good stuff, including flavor. Like I said, I am not here to tell you how to eat; I would just encourage you to be aware of what you are eating and to understand where it comes from. I suppose that this is more of an awareness post than anything. In the world of BigAg, there are choices to make and I simply encourage you to know the options and make an informed decision for your family.