Efficiency v Health

The Western industrial style diet has spread across the world, gobbling up acres of grocery store space as it expands. This diet focuses on presenting foods on the wholesale and retail shelves and in refrigerated cases that are stable, long lasting, and appealing. The corporate food model is one of if not the most successful economic force in human history because it has transcended political systems, wars, and the territorial nature of proud countries. These corporations smugly declare they are feeding the world efficiently and they are. Whether our health can handle the efficiency is a question they do not answer.

Making ziti explains the crisis of efficiency. Marilyn’s parents lost their caretaker temporarily and the daughters had to step up, cooking meals in large pans that would last several days at a time. The shopping list was easily fulfilled at the nearby regional chain grocery store with a few boxes, cartons, and a package of ground chicken, all name brand products at reasonable prices. Released from its can, the red sauce was seasoned in the pot, the noodles dropped in boiling water, and the ground meat was quickly browned. With the ingredients prepared, all of it was combined with a whole milk ricotta and placed in a baking dish with a spread of shredded cheese on top. The ziti took forty-five minutes to prepare. While the dish baked in the oven, all the prep ware was washed and dried. The dish was easy-peasy to prepare, although my garbage can was bulging with more packaging than usual.

Unfortunately, Marilyn got a dab of ricotta on her finger as she mixed the ingredients together. She licked her finger without thinking and her tongue went numb immediately. She reacts to msg.

Marilyn’s home version of ziti takes four times as long to prepare if she is willing to put in all the effort. Pasta dough is easy to make in the food processor, although the raw dough must sit for thirty to sixty minutes before using. The dough must be rolled, dusted with more flour, and shaped into noodles or cavatelli, because we only have two machines, manual, for shaping pasta. Room must be made for the pasta to dry before boiling.

While one brand of crushed tomatoes in a can printed with “no citric acid” on its label exists, the brand has disappeared from the local shelves. Roma tomatoes are slit on the bottom with a crisscross and placed in boiling water for two minutes, dipped in cold water, and then peeled. Once chopped, the tomatoes are cooked down with herbs; a blender is used for a smooth sauce after cooking.

A half-gallon of milk is heated to 200o F, taken off the heat and the juice of two lemons and salt are added to the milk and stirred. Ten minutes later, the curds and whey are separated. The mixture is poured through cheesecloth and the ricotta is trapped in the cloth.

Ground chicken is deboned raw from whole chickens that are purchased from trusted sources. After deboning, she hauls out the mix master and inserts the meat grinding attachment. Salt and herbs are added.

The dirty dishes, bowls and pots overrun the sink and continue down the counter. However, the squashes must be roasted and the cheese shredded on the box grater, before the ziti can be assembling for baking.

Marilyn demonstrates making a ziti from scratch takes an entire afternoon while using the corporate food model reduces the time to an hour. When efficiency is primary, the corporate model using industrial processes wins hands down. However, the industrial version of ziti is toxic to Marilyn, leaving her no choice in the matter. She may be extreme, but the western diet on a corporate scale with its emphasis on stability and consistent taste across vast geographic distances affects the human body in a variety of adverse ways. Many to most fail to tolerate all the offerings at the grocery store, from mild discomfort to ongoing medical issues.

Studies in Europe and the United States highlight a myriad of deleterious effects of the western diet. Insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, dyslipidemia (abnormal levels of cholesterol), cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and cancer are the top of the list at the National Institutes of Health. According to the Royal Society for Public Health (UK), obesity and cognitive decline are major outputs of the Western-type diet. Minor effects may be small weight gains, the inability to lose weight, bloating, momentary fatigue, or listlessness.

These consequences are old news with studies presenting similar conclusions going back decades. While the peer-reviewed studies project objectivity, time has demonstrated that many of these studies are flawed. The bias in these studies, both government and corporate-sponsored, is the concentrated focus on one ingredient, full fat milk or eggs for example. The overlooked bias operates as a good magician does, look here and not there, where I do not want you to look. The health consequences come not just from the milk over here, but from what was added to the milk over there, which may be consequentially worse. The chemical additives that make skim milk drinkable may be worse for the body than the full fat pasteurized milk. Declaring “eggs are good for you” or “eggs are bad for you” ignores the fact of where and how the chickens are raised grossly affects the quality of the laid eggs. France grades the quality of its eggs as a regulatory necessity.

The bias in the science blossoms in the public realm. The media presentation of food and diet, from advertising at one extreme to documentaries on the other, places the responsibility to control health consequences of diet on the individual. “Your poor health is your fault” is the overriding message from FDA food pyramids and heath columns on news sites. The food you chose to eat made you sick. People with good health must make better choices than you do is the corollary.

The narrative is fundamentally false. Some human bodies can handle industrial food chemicals, either removing them or neutralizing them before they harm the various systems. Other bodies react strongly and negatively. Even more, the effects of exposure may be over a time scale of decades, and the accumulation of adverse reactions is slow growing. The effect may be molecule by molecule, tiny and slow to grow although the ultimate result is permanent damage to the body. Updating the media presentation of diet by adding the missing nuance, the only productive conclusion is individual choices come into play only when credible choices are available, but not until then.

The corporate model grocery store offers very few non-industrial chemical-added food products. Unsalted butter should have unpasteurized cream as the only ingredient; most brands add a second ingredient, which is msg bound in one form or another. In the produce aisle, fruits and vegetables that travel far distances are sprayed with chemicals to retard rot or they are picked un-ripened and gassed with chemicals to force ripening. Meats are painted to retard smell and discoloration. Dairy products are usually ultra-pasteurized (UHT) or mixed with additives to fix the taste and slow decomposition. Inexpensive eggs are from chickens fed an industrial diet, giving a new sordid twist to the truism “you are what you eat.” The middle aisles of the store are populated with boxes, bags, and cans of industrial chemically enhanced food products. Even table salt, which should be NaCl (sodium chloride) only, has citric acid added to it.

The prudent food choices, to use the terminology of the Royal Society, are the less adulterated foods. The grocery store is not the place to find unadulterated foods though.  An estimated 95 to 98 percent of the offered grocery products are affected by the drive for efficiency, stability, and shelf life. Corporate food producers have added industrial food chemicals or utilized highly processed methods to enhance the probability of the consumer choosing their product and choosing it again during the next shopping trip.

When health is moved to the forefront and efficiency ratcheted backwards to a lesser priority, food choices take on a different set of sensibilities. Local produce is less likely to be treated. Locally butchered meats are also less likely to be painted with retarding chemicals because their distribution channels are short and direct. The expectation of long transit waits, the purpose of retarding chemicals on produce and meats, disappears.

The foods that are safe to eat take more time to prepare and turn to rot more quickly. Efficiency has great benefits, except for the fact the processes can negatively affect health. In a health-first diet, ziti becomes a weekend dish instead of a weeknight staple. Healthy dining influences our schedules as well, readjusting time allocations.

The health costs of quick dishes were papered over or ignored for decades. Other unmentioned costs include pollution, the explosion of one-use plastics, land degradation, and worst of all, climate change. Efficiency is a carbon belching patchwork of destructive agricultural practices, long transportation routes, and spewing factories, all of which are hidden from view.

By choosing health, demanding real choices for a healthy diet, the positive consequences cascade. Our health is intimately tied to the health of the planet, and we can help both at the same time when we step back from efficiency first models.

By Glenn Jacob

Rabbi, Community Leader, Fundraiser, Board Development, Non-profit management, strategic planning, educator, writer, and editor.

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