I’m a big fan of documentaries, especially those about where our food comes from. Most of these documentaries have the same basic information: we eat too much processed food, people in low income communities don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and corporations make the money while farmers can barely make a living.
I watched In Defense of Food this week. ‘Eat food, mostly plants, not too much’ is Michael Pollan’s takeaway from the documentary based on his book of the same name. This documentary had much of the same information as others I’ve watched, but it did bring up some ideas that I hadn’t thought about…
Eating Trends or In Season
Avocados are the cool it food. Avocado toast. Guacamole. Sliced avocado salad. Peak hipster problem: we love avocados SO much that we now have ‘avocado hand.’ (Which I fully believe is the result of your own dumb behavior. If you are slicing into your hand while cutting your avocado, your avocado isn’t ready to eat anyway.) But why are avocados the cool it food?
There is a Portlandia episode where they follow a celery salesman who has to make a deal with the devil, ie the bacon salesman, to get people to buy and eat more celery.
While it is a hilarious tale of a man trying to get the public to consume something they don’t like, it also highlights how we consume ‘the next big thing’ without thinking for ourselves. The general public eats based on what the current trend is, not what food is currently ‘in season.’
While living in India and Zambia, I didn’t realize how used to eating ‘in season’ I was. If the tomato plant was giving tomatoes, you had tomatoes in everything. If the sweet potatoes were just harvested, that’s what you ate 3 meals a day for a week. I wasn’t eating food choices because of trends, I was eating (or not eating) because of Mother Nature’s influence.
When I moved back to the US, I was overwhelmed by the amount of food in the grocery store. There is an entire aisle of cereal choices (Lucky Charms is always my pick!). There is always tons of meat, from every animal. And there is always a huge, and Instagram-worthy, selection of fruits and vegetables. Even if it is the middle of winter. Even in South Dakota.
But the majority of those selections are based on food trends. 7 years ago, you couldn’t find hummus to save your life in Sioux Falls. Now there is an entire section right up front next to the fresh vegetables, full of all sorts of flavored hummus. You can even buy brownie batter hummus. Hummus is trendy now! So I guess I’ll have to wait until marinated feta becomes ‘trendy’ in the US, so I can get my fix here instead of eating all the marinated feta while in Australia.
Why do we have food trends?
Marketing campaigns can convince us things are bad for us, so we shouldn’t consume them. Marketing can also convince us that things are GOOD for us, so we SHOULD consume them. Usually this happens without providing any sort of education to us, the consumer. We blindly trust and believe that what a large multi-billion dollar industry is telling us, is the truth.
In the documentary, Pollan explores how the food industry in America revolutionized food manufacturing processes to make the shelf life of their products longer. Every packaged food today has their roots in these initially processes that started almost 100 years ago. This created the entire middle section of a grocery store today. Flour, pasta, chips, cookies. All of those things that come in packets are packed with chemicals to make them taste better and, more importantly, last longer.
These companies turn to marketing to convince consumers to buy their products. Products are ‘fortified’ with ‘essential nutrients’ and contain ‘vitamins.’ But these aren’t the natural state of products. The food industry is taking the naturally occurring nutrients out of food, then replacing them with nutrients to make us stronger. Then they make commercials to convince consumers that this product is better than others!
Why does food need defense?
Marketing and trends and big business has made the public forget what we really do need to do. We need to eat. And we need to eat, FOOD. Food that doesn’t come in a packet, that doesn’t come with a thousand claims to make your life longer or better or healthier or stronger. Just plain food, like stalks of celery (just think of that poor celery salesman when you buy some!!!!). Tv is filled with fast and packaged food commercials, but you rarely see commercials for plain celery. FOOD needs some defense.
Like every good ‘fad’ diet, Pollan created a list of rules to follow. The premise is ‘Eat Food, Mostly Plants, Not Too Much.’ If you take this basic and simple guideline, you’ll immediately start to eat simpler (and in my case, healthier). This isn’t a fad diet. Pollan isn’t telling you that you will lose 20 pounds in 6 weeks or that you’ll lower your cholesterol in 3 weeks. In fact, he isn’t telling you to do it at all. He is simply sharing the take-aways that he has pulled together over the course of researching and learning about food.
Usually when I watch a documentary, I think about how or what I can do to change things in my daily life to make the world a better place. After watching In Defense of Food, I’ve decided to focus on chemicals.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to eat healthy. I’ve been eating vegetables and eating a lot less red meat. When I’m eating super healthy, I study food labels to see what they actually have inside. Most things have sugar, or some sort of sugar byproduct that has a long chemical name. Most things contain corn, or some sort of corn byproduct – again, that has a super long chemical name. If I can’t pronounce what’s in the food, should I really be eating it?! No, probably not.
I love flavoring and spices, and in America (as with everything else), there are thousands of choices. I work hard to read the labels and try to eliminate things like ‘caking agent’ (if it’s making the seasoning not stick together in the bottle, what does it do to your stomach?) and long chemical names that are made from corn. And after watching this documentary, I’m going to work hard to eliminate using these packaged seasonings that are filled with chemicals.
I’m going to be honest with you. While I have just pledged to myself (and put it out there into the Universe) to eliminate using packaged seasonings, I do still have 2 bottles of ranch dressing seasoning and 1 bottle of Frank’s hot sauce seasoning in the cupboard. I hate food waste more than I hate chemicals, so after I finish these bottles, I won’t be buying new ones.
This leads me to balance. I’m not very good about balance in my own life. I’m either on or off. There really isn’t a lot in-between for me. So when I’m healthy, I’m super healthy. When I’m eating poorly, I’m eating ALL the junk food. But I’m trying to have better balance and more love for myself when things don’t go my way. If I feel like a beer at the end of the day, it’s ok to have a beer. If I want some chips for a snack, this is ok. Things in balance are best, and we should all aim to be in balance.
I’ll leave you with my favorite piece of advice from Pollan in In Defense of Food:
Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.