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What is Food?

Emma Tekstra > Nutrition  > What is Food?

What is Food?

It seems like a simple question. It’s what I eat three times a day. It stops me from feeling hungry. The Oxford English dictionary comes a little closer – notice the reference to “nutritious” and “nourishment”.

Food (noun): Any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink in order to maintain life and growth; nourishment, provisions. [Oxford English Dictionary]

With the wide array of food-like substances on offer these days it might be beneficial for us to review this simple definition. The UPF industry (ultra-processed food) is bad enough with its toxic array of additives to make food convenient, shelf-stable, ultra-palatable (ie. addictive) and profitable. But Big Food has now created an unholy alliance with Big Pharma to bring us lab-grown meat. The impact on our health is even more sinister.

The Cornification of the Food System

As Michael Pollan explains in his masterpiece The Omnivore’s Dilemma (see an overview in my earlier post), corn has found its way into 70 per cent of the American food system. Soy is not very far behind. And don’t think I’m talking about the juicy yellow stuff you eat on a cob with some butter and salt. No, commodity corn is an entirely different substance that has been hybridized beyond recognition not only to vastly boost yields, but to withstand the liberal application of toxic pesticides and herbicides.

As Mr. Pollan carefully explains, the mountain of commodity corn now available has led to such a wide array of derivatives that on a typical packet of any processed food the majority of ingredients can be traced back to corn. Plus corn has become the food of choice for industrially grown animals like cows, pigs and chickens. So you may think you’re eating a steak but unless you know that the cow was raised entirely on pasture, it is likely to have been fed corn leading to a completely different nutrient profile.

Even labels such as “grass fed” can be used if the cow got some grass in its lifetime but was finished (fattened up) on corn. Mr. Pollan explains vividly what corn does to the metabolism of a cow which was designed to live on grass. It’s not pretty. The “organic” label can also be misleading as there are types of commodity corn that can be labelled organic. “Organic” chicken is a particular problem as are “organic” eggs where the hens could still be kept entirely indoors in factory farms and fed nothing but a strain of commodity corn. Our bodies were designed to eat real foods that exist as nature designed them: cows and sheep eating grass, chickens and pigs foraging on a wide variety of plants.

Fake Foods

Speaking of real foods there is a whole industry around the marketing of fake foods and here I’m talking about single ingredient foods such as fish, cheese, olive oil… This is a topic mainly for foodies like me but worth mentioning as the issue can have very real health consequences.

Larry Olmsted covers the topic admirably in his book Real Food Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating & What You Can Do About It. The chapter on fish is particularly eye opening explaining how fish and seafood is the most faked food in America. It’s not only the sushi restaurants selling you “tuna” which is actually escolar, nicknamed “ex-lax fish” due to the natural toxin it contains that can give people digestive issues and diarrhea. But many restaurants and retailers will mis-label fake grouper, snapper, cod, halibut, even monkfish. Crab is well-known to be imitation most of the time. Whether the fish is truly wild-caught or in fact farmed, often as far away as Asia, also has significant implications for your health. You’ve probably heard that wild-caught salmon is a health food but farmed salmon has often been pumped full of antibiotics and other drugs and fed…corn! The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch organization is your best source of information (worldwide).

Olive oil is another food that has won a healthy label which has helped drive the forging opportunities. It is Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) that has the health benefits, made from freshly picked and immediately pressed olives at their peak of ripeness. Adulteration comes in all sorts of guises from dilution with (wholly unhealthy) vegetable oils, processing with chemicals, or just using inferior olives that have degraded before pressing. While Italy is considered the home of olive oil (Spain actually produces more), testing reveals some of the worst fakes originate from Italy or have Italian-sounding labels to convey authenticity. Seek out EVOO from Australia, Chile or even California to have the best chance at quality.

Food Without Farmers

World leaders will have you believe there is a climate crisis and the only way to solve it is for humans to change what they have been doing for hundreds of years and reduce our reliance on farming. The documentary No Farmers No Food: Will You Eat the Bugs? covers some of the policy decisions being made by the World Economic Forum, United Nations and individual countries.  I actually don’t mind the concept of us eating bugs – the film shows the growth of companies producing locusts and meal worms for human food – many cultures around the world include insects as a staple. (In the Bible, John the Baptist was noted to have survived on locusts and wild honey in the wilderness). When we visited a local village in the Ecuadorean Amazon a few years ago we were served a cooked larvae of some kind as part of a meal (it’s the brown item on the left). I survived without incident but am not in a hurry to add it to my weekly menu.

The problem for me is the conceit that humans can somehow control nature. When you farm as God intended letting the natural processes take over (see Omnivore’s Dilemma post) it adds to the land and to humans – it is not a net zero game, everybody wins. A centrally controlled food system will be a disaster for mankind. The whole concept of “nourishment” is completely lost. It’s important we support our local farmers and particularly those practicing regenerative farming as our mutual health depends on them. See ETA Products for recommendations.

Pharma Food

Lab grown meat is then the last step in the march to obliterate our relationship to nature (although I wouldn’t bet against the mad scientists creating something even worse).

Starting with the notion of fake meat derived from plants, we now have the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat. Marketed as healthier for you and the planet, make no mistake these are highly processed junk foods. With more than twenty different ingredients, and scores of patents held for all the different processing methods (and chemicals) that go into their production you’d most likely be better off eating McDonalds. As far as the planet is concerned, while factory farmed cows probably do consume more corn and soy than are used in these products pound for pound, the marketing claims do not hold up against regenerative farming of beef. Grass-fed ranching actually shows a net-negative impact on the environment (less than zero green-house gas emissions) when all factors are taken into account.

The case for lab grown meat is even more diabolical. Using processes developed by the biopharma industry to engineer 21st century drugs and gene therapy products, they start from stem cells extracted from chickens, beef or even fish. But the chance of contamination by bacteria and viruses is high requiring the liberal use of antibiotics and other drugs. Not to mention growing them in a toxic plasma created to encourage cell growth sounds rather like the environment in which cancer grows. You can read the problems encountered by one company called Upside Foods in this Wired article. For a full explanation of what is really involved in lab-grown meat and the broader implications, see this informative interview with Elze van Hamelen.  

Despite the challenges, several start-ups in the US, UK, Netherlands and Israel are pouring great sums of money into the concept. While it sounds far fetched (and the economic realities make no sense), we are hopefully years away from products showing up in the grocery store and fast-food chains. However, watch out for products snuck into your pet’s food.

Would you rather pay the farmer of the pharmacy?

Most people spend more time researching their plumber or a contractor to fix their house than where their food comes from. Your food is the substance that provides you with life and health. What you eat is the #1 predictor of whether or not you are likely to succumb to illness.  We cannot do much individually about the commercial and political players involved in destroying the food supply but we can support our local farmers and farmers markets. We can ask more questions about where our food comes from. We can think more intentionally about how we eat and what we eat. We can make better decisions about where and with whom we spend our money. Would you rather pay the farmer or the pharmacy?

For recommended sources of real food see ETA Products.  

Emma Tekstra
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