[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
The other day, I was in Trader Joe's purchasing all the boring food items I eat every week but never talk about, because they're boring and food is also, largely boring: spinach, eggs, almond milk, bananas, bread, almonds, berries, chicken (white meat), tofu (not meat), and coffee (always coffee, lots of coffee).
I was walking down the cereal/dried fruit/tea aisle and saw peppermint vegan mini marshmallows. What in the actual fucking universe inspires someone to make tiny pink, vaguely pepperminted marshmallows? Are we supposed to feel cheer? Are we supposed to celebrate the holiday season with a cup of brown sugar water (cocoa) topped with pink sugar pellets (marshmallows), and sigh deeply and feel that the world is finally, blessedly right?
I was confused, and felt, suddenly, that I did not belong here, in a healthy-ish food store that sells sugar pellets under the guise of holiday cheer, with dozens of zombie people filling their baskets with fake foods and not even realizing that the food they're eating isn't supposed to exist. Tiny, peppermint vegan marshmallows aren't real, but this is a world that believes they are real simply because they are here. I can hold them in my hand, read a long list of indecipherable ingredients, eat them if I want to, and so, they must be real. I was very sad and I could not understand why.
I think I was sad because, as I was blithely filling my cart with boring food and daydreaming about daydreams, I realized how weird grocery stores are. How sterile and disconnected from reality. Food doesn't come from shelves. There is a long long line of food production that begins with growing the food, transporting the food, packaging, processing, refrigeration, etc. Sometimes the processing bit (as with the marshmallows) is the most significant step, which seems fairly fucked up if I do say so myself. Take a chicken wing, which are an enduring food love to many rosy-cheeked sports fans. The chicken wing does not just arrive on a shelf. The chicken was alive once, and I bet if you saw a live chicken you wouldn't have an urge to eat its wing. So many of us cringe when we see someone kill an animal yet turn around and eat the flesh of that very same animal when it stops looking like an animal. When it's wrapped in cellophane or marinated in unnameable juices or covered in hot sauce on our plates.
Vegetables are no different. If we were stranded and walking through a field of young broccoli, I bet many of us wouldn't even know what it was. We'd collapse beneath a broccoli plant and die before noticing that it's fucking edible; that it's the same stuff we buy in packages every week in the refrigerated section of our local Ralph's.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are over 3,000 food ingredients that have been deemed safe to ingest, including relatively benign things like baking soda, sugar, and salt, and less benign things like artificial spices and colors and long, confusing chemicals like disodium inosinate, propylene glycol, or norbixin. The U.S. actually has some of the most lax food safety laws in the world; many foods we eat daily have been banned in other countries, including genetically modified fruits and vegetables and the rBGH or rBST growth hormones found in many dairy products.
I'm not a doctor, or even well-versed in food science, but I try to be an informed consumer. I remember reading labels upon labels and putting food items back because I couldn't understand what the fuck was in them. I'm an athlete who wants to perform well and fuel my body properly. Thus, I want to eat healthy, whole foods, and I don't think it should be so difficult. My dietitian has taught me to maintain a neutral attitude in how I think of foods, removing labels like "good and bad" from my food lexicon. But there are some foods that help me feel better and some foods that make me feel noticeably worse, and it may have less to do with the foods themselves and more to do with how we process them.
Take dairy, for instance. There's a host of anecdotal evidence about how items like bread and dairy products made in Europe are easier for gluten-sensitive and lactose-sensitive folks to digest, for a variety of reasons that mostly come down to how each food item is processed. Dr. Lauren Deville writes that wheat is the U.S. has been bred specifically to cultivate certain traits such as a higher gluten content to make loaves more fluffy. Unlike some European nations, the U.S. allows the use of glyphosate (the toxic ingredient in Round Up), which, according to the EPA, does not affect humans. However, since the use of glyphosate has become widespread, inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders and obesity have risen significantly. The way our food is processed matters.
In regard to dairy products, a protein called beta casein is partly to blame and more specifically, amino acid number 67. In European cows, amino acid number 67 is a proline, while in American cows, amino acid number 67 is a histidine. This particular amino acid anchors a protein fragment called BCM-7 that is associated with dairy intolerance. There are a number of possible reasons that American cows have this genetic trait, and artificially injecting hormones has been blamed, but never entirely proven. Like I said, I'm not an expert, so read more about dairy and why you might be intolerant here.
I guess my point is that, generally, the bastardization of food into items we eat but that don't even resemble real food is depressing at best and insidious at worst. I'm not sure why we're still studying this, but according to a Northwestern Medicine study, the United States packaged food and beverage supply is "ultra-processed and generally unhealthy." And, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research, over 57% of the calories in an average American diet come from highly processed foods, like the mini peppermint vegan marshmallows I saw at Trader Joe's.
There is an obvious takeaway that most will blithely ignore, but it's this: eat whole foods. Fruits and vegetables are a good start, especially if they're organic or if you grow them yourself. Buy things with very short ingredient lists. Eat foods that do not have shelf lives of 20 years and are not bright, neon colors. Most importantly, pay attention to how you feel when you eat certain foods and let that guide you. Most of the time, a tiny pink vegan peppermint marshmallow won't help you feel better, even if that's what TJ's wants you to believe.
To a larger point: it shouldn't be so difficult to find safe, healthy food. The onus has been put on the consumer to not only fight the addictive qualities of highly processed food, but to figure out what foods are most healthy and spend the money to buy them. Healthy food has become somewhat of a privilege and that, even more than the tiny pink vegan marshmallows, is fucked up. EUFIC - The European Food Information Council, is a non-profit organisation, whose mission it is to provide engaging science-based information to inspire and empower healthier and more sustainable food and lifestyle choices. The entire reason EUFIC exists is to deconstruct the wildly inaccurate food information being tossed down our throats with ineptitude.
My final, larger point, is that it isn't your fault if you feel confused or woeful when confronted with a shiny store full of half-real food items with long ingredient lists and clever packaging. Most food is manufactured less for health and more for profit, as has been established by dozens of people smarter than me. The best way I know to avoid the clever packaging and zombie shoppers is to shop less and stick to my aforementioned boring food items, most of which don't have ingredient lists.
P.S. Since I've established by lack of authority here, listen to the experts. Read a study conducted by the Laborer's Health and Safety Fund of North America here, one from the American Heart Association, the NHS, or Harvard Health.