Eating “clean and real” food seems to be the buzz of just about any diet plan, lifestyle blog and trendy documentaries, lately. Apparently, there are some foods that are inherently cleaner or realer than others, and we’re supposed to open up our hearts, minds and wallets to these superfoods.
So, What Foods Are Clean?
The notion that one food is inherently cleaner or dirtier than another is bananas (terrible pun intended). However, the trend of Clean Eating, which encourages people to consume foods that are “un- or minimally processed, refined, and handled, making them as close to their natural form as possible”, is ever-popular.
Clean eating is not a bad thing; it promotes eating more simply, with a high emphasis on consuming more fruits and vegetables. The problem stems from the implication that certain, low-cost foods are somehow dirtier and high-cost, organic foods are cleaner. This is problematic, because it creates a food-class-divide and disconnect between the grower, picker and consumer.
How Did We Get Here?
Well, it’s a long story. To (over)simplify it; more people started eating out and buying pre-prepared food, and fewer people were cooking from scratch or at all. As we became busier, food marketers started to strategically sneak their way into our kitchens with little to no regard for public health.
Simultaneously, industrial agriculture took over; making it difficult for small-scale farmers to make a living using the traditional agricultural methods. Formerly, farmers used methods such as crop rotation to maintain a more biodiverse space — think all the animals that roamed Old Macdonald’s farm. Now, much of the Midwest practices monocropping, only growing one crop year after year, for corn, wheat and soy. This is an environmental and biological hazard, resulting in lifeless soil, soil erosion, and an increased need for pesticides and herbicides. Organic farming, on the other hand, encourages the presence of beneficial organisms such as soil fungi, pollinators, and predatory and weed-seed-eating insects, making chemical additives a non-issue. If only organic were the standard, versus a branding tool.
A Flawed Food System, Turned Public Health Concern.
It’s no coincidence that the obesity epidemic in the U.S. has much to do with the fact that the price of processed foods, laden with corn sweeteners and soy (heavily subsidized by the government), have gone down and the price of fresh produce has risen. Fresh fennel and arugula, while delicious, aren’t usually highest on your grocery list when trying to stretch your dollar.
Luckily, the movement to shop at farmers’ markets has provided an alternative to industrial agriculture; ensuring fresher and more localized products. Lucky, though, only for those who can afford it. Families with more economic woes don’t necessarily have access to farmers’ markets: financially or geographically. Therefore, falling victim to the obesity epidemic, and health concerns that pharmaceutical companies are happy to help solve for a pretty penny.
I Know The Outlook Seems Grim, But There Is Hope.
I realize that everything I just presented makes us seem like we are living in a sad, dystopian novel, but that is hardly the case. Don’t get me wrong, things are bad, but the good news is that there is more of a push towards food education and sovereignty. Food Sovereignty is the principle that nations should be allowed to decide their agricultural policies rather than submit to free trade regimes.
We see it already with urban gardening, in-school cooking classes and former First Lady, Michelle Obama’s organic garden and call to food marketers to “rethink the products offered.” The important part is to keep learning about what is going on — volunteer at an urban garden, watch videos on YouTube and learn how to make some basic recipes, plant your own garden. There are so many things that individually, people can do, that will collectively make a difference. Remember, this impacts you, it impacts your community and it will impact the future generation — it’s time to care.
Cooked by Michael Pollan (It’s both a book and a four-part series on Netflix)
Food Price Outlook, 2017-18 from the USDA
If Everyone Ate Beans Instead of Beef by James Hamblin, The Atlantic
Understanding Sustainable Diets by Jessica L. Johnston, Jessica C. Fanzo and Bruce Cogill
(Illustration courtesy of Nele McCarey )