What is food?

This is the first part of a new series for people just getting started on eating healthy food: How to Eat Real Food.

The journey to eat real food at home begins with a realization. For some of us it’s a health issue, like allergies or gluten intolerance. Doctors may recommend a real food diet for those recovering from an illness. Or we may become aware that what we’re eating now is not what we were eating two decades ago. Whatever impulse puts us on the journey, everyone starts with the same startling question, a question whose answer should be obvious but turns out not to be. What is food?

Winter garden

Winter garden

One place to start is to explore what is not food. We eat a lot of things that our great-grandparents would not have called food. Some of them are packaged as food, others are added into food as ingredients.

Top three tip-offs that it isn’t really food

It was manufactured. Food usually has some connection with a living thing, like a carrot or a pig or a mushroom. Anything that starts its life as a “slurry” in a factory is far enough removed from its once-living ingredients that it’s lost its nutritive value.

It doesn’t rot. Apples and squash can keep a while in the refrigerator or cold cellar but will eventually decompose. On the other hand potato chips don’t mold, they get stale. Stuff that begins as “slurry” falls into this category too, but so does overly preserved or overly processed items. Some people who suspect gluten intolerance discover that they are reacting to the preservatives in commercial bread.

It’s been contaminated. Vegetables grown with pesticides, milk and meat from animals grown with antibiotics and hormones, honey from bees fed on high fructose corn syrup are technically raw food but introduce hidden risks to health.

Why can’t we tell what is actually food?

Labels lie. The word “natural” has no meaning, it’s just an advertisement. Foods which have been genetically modified aren’t widely noted on labels yet. Of course labels don’t identify the pesticides, antibiotics or hormones that were used to grow the food. Also, labels identify ingredients with long chemical names that conceal their real origins. When Steve Ettlinger’s daughter asked him what went into a twinkie, he investigated. In Twinkie Deconstructed he explained that common food ingredients include ground rocks, wood shavings, and substances chemically created from petroleum.

Processing introduces contaminants. Famous examples in the last decade include lettuce with e coli bacteria and eggs and peanut butter containing salmonella. Each of these were traced to a single processing plant which introduced the bacteria to the foods.

We don’t know where our food comes from. The image on the cereal box of fields of grain surrounding a picturesque barn are another form of marketing. Industrial agriculture involves very large fields and orchards harvested by machines and taken to a centralized processing plant to be packaged and shipped around the country. This all happens out of our sight and includes processes which aren’t immediately obvious. One example is adding bleach or ammonia to ground beef to keep bacteria counts down. How could you know that when you buy the package in the store or the hamburger in the burger joint?

What happened to government regulation and inspection?

When food makes people sick government steps in to trace the source of the contamination and require the producer to clean it up. Our regulatory agencies mandate processing techniques intended to keep the contamination down. This system gives us a sense of safety, but how safe is it keeping our food?

There are reasons the system doesn’t work as well as it could. Budget cuts have left regulatory agencies understaffed. Inspectors may inspect a fraction of the food being processed. With so few eyes in the plants it’s easy to deliberately hide contamination, as with the meat processing plant that bought cancerous and diseased cows and handled them out of sight of the inspector. Regulations often don’t have teeth to enforce them; when contamination is discovered the plants may be given a warning to clean up rather than shut down. Industry influence keeps regulations loose to start with.

All this leaves us with the responsibility to educate ourselves. Armed with a little information we can make choices that put healthier foods on the table.

Choosing real food

So how can we make sure that what we are eating is good for us?

Take back dinner. The first thing we can do is stop thinking of ourselves as “consumers”. The healthy person is a co-producer, actively participating in the production and processing of the food that makes it to our table.

Eat organic. To be designated organic, a food must be produced without hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, or additives. While the system isn’t perfect, and some argue that permitted preservatives and other substances should lose their exemptions, in general a fruit or chicken or box of cereal labeled organic comes much closer to what our great-grandparents would recognize as food.

Buy from farmers. This is easier in some parts of the country than others. The Northeast (Vermont and upper New York) and Northwest (Northern California, Oregon and Washington) are flooded with farmers markets, while other parts of the country have no farmers markets at all. Most major cities have some sort of exchange – I’ve visited farmers markets and greengrocers in Chicago, New York City, and Washington DC. In some areas you may also be able to locate a food co-op.

When you buy from people who produce the food you can ask questions. Does this contain hormones? Did you use pesticides? Producers have a wealth of information that never makes it into recipe books. An orchardist can tell you which apples are best for pies and which will keep all winter. A rancher can tell you the cooking difference between bone-in and boneless, shoulder and rump. Beekeepers will be happy to explain the difference between raw honey and the heated varieties in the store.

Grow some ourselves. It’s amazingly satisfying to clip a few leaves of oregano and thyme to throw into a soup. A plastic bowl on the porch can grow lettuce for salads for weeks. A potager garden can produce substantial amounts of food which cuts down on grocery bills and ensures that the food is as fresh as possible.

Learn to cook. Our quest for foods that will keep a long time and can be eaten without preparation is part of what has gotten us here in the first place. Processing our own food cuts costs and increases quality – my family’s everyday dinner would cost a small fortune in a restaurant.

Now that we have some idea what real food is and how to get it, the next step is learning to shop – but that’s another post!


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