For as much enjoyment good food can bring into our lives, the focus often feels to be on foods to be avoided rather than on those to be sought. I am using the word foods loosely, however, for I am not defining good and bad foods in the way my students frequently mean, such as good kale versus bad ice cream, for example; as I have argued previously, in this sense there are no good and bad foods, only good and bad amounts of food. The reality in today’s industrialized food landscape, however, is that there are foods our great grandparents would recognize, and there are foods they would fail to recognize. If one is truly conscientious about eating real food and providing proper nourishment to our families, the categories of food not to be placed in your shopping cart can be extensive:
- Processed foods: the processing of modern foods reaches well beyond the familiar convenience foods of our youth, and represent a complete reconceptualization of what food is, how it is prepared, and how we respond to it. The food industry and the research efforts of their legions of food scientists have yielded detailed insights into how to engineer and design foods for maximal impact on our sensory systems to ensure a high degree of addictiveness. These efforts, as detailed in recent investigative reports such as Salt Sugar Fat, by Michael Moss, and other books I described in an earlier post, have fundamentally changed the eating habits of millions of people, as well as introduced unprecedented levels of salt, sugar and fat.
- Sugary foods: an honored category within process foods, sugar and sweetness represent the ideal taste, especially for children, that guarantee continued sales.
- Salty foods: fully 77% of our daily salt intake is from processed and restaurant foods.
- Genetically modified foods: as for many other categories in this list, there is a genuine scientific debate as to the health risks poised by genetically modified foods. Even if we concede that foods genetically modified to resist pests or herbicides or to grow bigger and faster yield a low risk of harm, many significant questions remain on issues of environmental concerns, the health of non-targeted invertebrate species, the impact on the organic food industry, the decreased diversity of critical food crops, and the emphasis on efficiency over sustainability and durability. The argument that consumers can choose for or against genetically modified foods is only a real argument if consumers know which products contain genetically modified ingredients. Consumers have a right to know what is in the food they are purchasing: labeling laws must be passed.
If we ignore for the moment foods derived from animals, many others will extend the above list of foods worth avoiding to include:
- Non-organic foods: the recent research literature makes the scientific case that organic fruits and vegetables offer no nutritional or nutrient advantage over conventionally grown produce. This is a classic straw man argument, however, for I will argue that the majority of people purchase organic foods for reasons other than nutritional quality, including: (1) food safety due to absence of pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, and hormones; (2) farm worker safety due to decreased exposure to pesticides and herbicides; and (3) environmental concerns of soil health, water purity and insect diversity.
- Foods from further away than 100 miles: Although originally an ecological drive to decrease the carbon footprint of food production, it is now frequently described as a movement to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies. There is a genuine debate whether the simplistic arguments for locavorism, the environmental impact of decreasing food miles, and the efficiency and feasibility of eating locally represent good public policy. Personally, I find the movement is increasing awareness of what is in season and introducing a new set of recipes dealing with a new set of vegetable.
- Foods involved in a political or social boycott: my political awaking as a high school student was my involvement with Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers and the grape boycott that open many eyes to the working conditions of migrant farm workers. To this day, I think of this when I reach for a bag of grapes. Sadly, the average consumer is unaware of the exploitive conditions involving much of industrial food production, and is unaware of the many food boycotts still in play. The Nestlé Boycott protesting the marketing of infant formula, or the Monsanto Boycott protesting corporate ownership of food and seed production are but a sampling of many examples of consumer activism. The EthicalConsumer.org maintains an up to date list of active consumer boycotts, and it is extensive! The point here, however, is not a mindless joining of a fashionable boycott, but to remind ourselves that each and every purchase we make is a vote of approval for that product.
After reading through this overly long, fear inducing, list of troublesome foods, I am happy to report that the vast majority are easily avoided. Home cooking is the ideal antidote to all ills related to many of the described concerns. Entire aisles of the grocery store are avoided when one shops for the basic elements of a wholesome meal prepared at home. The fruits and vegetables, the spices, the grains, your choice of meats and cooking oil, and ultimately, your portion sizes are all under your control. Part of the secret, however, is to enjoy the journey. Cultivating a love of cooking is not simply a matter of expertise and technique, but a realization that you are engaged in a socializing activity of family. It empowers the seizing of control over your health and diet. Go for it.
This article was originally published on the Georgetown Food Studies Blog. Republished here with permission of the author, Georgetown University Professor of Pharmacology and Physiology, Thomas Sherman. Professor Sherman is a contributing author to the GUWellness blog, exploring topics like food as medicine, nutrition, metabolism, exercise and appetite.