Environment and FOOD
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 the 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.
Will the Meatless Meat Save Us?
Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat have made their media debut and are deep in the marketing plans for their publicity campaign. Their products are now available at fast food restaurants and coming soon to as many food-product streams as possible. Venture capital firms are bullish on the companies and the financial outlook in the press is positive. While meatless meat is the latest in processed foods to be offered to the consumer, the products, like their predecessors, follow the arc of other highly-processed food products rigorously marketed to a skeptical audience.
The marketing departments of these meatless meats are pursuing two sales pitches to woo us to their savory offerings. The first pitch is for human health, complete with a set of points of how this product is better for the human body than the meat it is replacing. They are arguing that meatless meat is the healthy choice. The second pitch is a series of arguments about climate change and degradation of the environment, and how these products benefit the planet. Their pitch is that each of us can help save the planet from ourselves by choosing meatless meat. Between the two arenas of argument stands the acclamation: they are tasty, and they taste like the meat these products are replacing; therefore, you should eat them.
The first pitch takes a page from the Heart Association, removing red meat from the human diet promotes better health. The heart and the rest of the circulatory system benefits from the removal of large quantities of animal fats in any given diet is a true, evidence-based statement. These meatless meats do meet this healthier heart criterion by removing animal fats. However, these products are still higher calorie foods than grains and vegetables. They are not necessarily healthier either. The complex composition of these food products provokes other issues of human health.
These meatless meats are highly-processed, which is only a descriptive term. No scientific consensus exists on the definition of a processed food. Pasteurized milk is processed, and ultra-pasteurized (UHT) milk is highly-processed; however, the comparison between the two milks is like night and day. Pasteurized milk is heated to 212oF (100oC) until the harmful bacteria and enzymes, the pathogens, are killed. The milk is chilled and ready for consumption. Due to the application of minor heat, there are only minor changes to the nutritional quality.
Ultra-pasteurized milk is sterile milk. The milk is heated beyond boiling to 275oF (135oC) and has a burnt taste. Chemicals, including msg, are added to give the milk flavor and to mask the burnt taste. Vitamins and minerals must be added to the product as well to reproduce nutritional benefits that were destroyed by the major heat. Packaged in sterile containers, UHT milk has a typical unrefrigerated shelf life of six to nine months. All the ultra-pasteurized dairy products go through the same thorough process.
The lack of definitions of mildly processed, processed, and highly-processed is exploited by the food industry. Food producers are legally allowed to market their products as they wish, and the FDA boundaries are few. Companies trot out food scientists who will go on the record saying without a definition of processed food, no one can determine when a food is processed beyond its original state. After all, eggplant must be cooked in order to be edible. From a specific legal standing, manufacturers of highly-processed food products can claim that their foods are healthy. In every other reasonable context, the claim is ambiguous.
This ambiguity is what the meatless meat companies exploit as well. Yes, the meatless meat is processed, but so is milk and eggplant. Who is to say what product is highly-processed? Besides, the FDA approved the food product for human consumption, which means the food cannot hurt you.
Except, long term food studies on ingredient safety do not exist and even if someone were willing to pay for such a study, how would the researcher compensate for the variables of the other 20,000 different botanical and animal foods humans consume. Such data is impossible to collect and even if it were, what human would want to be constrained to such a limited diet for years? The safety testing is limited and instead of adding caution because of the limits, food companies fill the vacuum with positive marketing campaigns.
All the debate over what is processed food deliberately ignores one inescapable element of food. Vitamins and minerals in our fruits and vegetables do not present as discreet components of food. The essential elements for human health are integrated into other components, other chemicals, which help with the absorption of vitamins and minerals in our gut. These other chemicals help with digestion, providing bridges and catalysts that promote absorption. The publication of added fortified vitamins and minerals are listed on the side of the cereal box, does not confirm that the body absorbs any of them by consuming the food product in the box. The more processing, the less likelihood of absorption takes place, because most of the helpful bridge and catalyst chemicals are not present.
Whether these meatless products are healthy for you is still subject to confirmation. They are healthier in one area, no animal fat. Beef is more than fat though, giving us the essential nutrients from the muscle tissue. The more processed a product is, the more “empty calories” devoid of essential nutrients we consume. While the human digestive system digests beef efficiently, the gastrointestinal tract tends to react to artificial ingredients, creating side effects such as gastric distress. The FDA can confirm the food product will not kill you on a short-term basis, but agency’s confirmation does not verify that the product is good for you.
In the end, the consumer is left to decide with a paucity of evidence whether or not to eat highly-processed food products. While the food industry can spin the lack of evidence as a “not bad thing,” the long-term health of your physical body is what is at stake. No one knows the outcome of those stakes.
The second arena, climate change and the environment, is easier to parse as a benefit.
Cattle and their beef on one side and the environment and climate change on the other conflict in surprising ways. The raising of cattle from birth to the slaughterhouse and onto the wrapped packages in your grocery bag accounts for 25 percent of the greenhouse gases in the United States every year. Huge swathes of land are necessary to raise cattle to adulthood and these lands are not used sustainably because of the monoculture ranching business model. Large herds of cattle degrade the soil and the flora because the other natural systems that would complement bovine herds are gone. The contribution of carbon to the atmosphere from cows is far more than the intestinal gases emitted from both ends of the cow, although bovine methane is a recognized contributor. The feedlots at the end of a cow’s life are another ethical and environmental travesty with huge environmental consequences.
The pursuit of healthier beef for human consumption has a larger impact on the environment than the standard ranching models. Standard models allocate three acres per cow while grass fed cows require nine acres per cow. Three times as much land is required to raise a healthier-for-consumption cow, which hastens degradation of the land and quickens deforestation.
Reducing the amount of beef in the human diet is the non-negotiable requirement in addressing climate change. Those societies that eat large quantities of beef will be forced to cut back their consumption, some to zero. The present model is unsustainable, and as the droughts spread across the land and deepen, cattle ranching will become untenable. One way or the other, the falling consumption of beef is coming. Most people would prefer the voluntary cessation of beef without environmental devastation than the climate-induced model, one would think.
Into this great shift in diet from beef to more sustainable foods, wades the meatless meat products. Their argument is that they can give beef eaters what they crave without the actual beef, and the world is saved. While everyone welcomes the reduction in carbon, the argument overreaches.
First, we are not going to save the world through fast food franchises or through frozen meatless meat patty bundles in the freezer section of the grocery store. The absurdity of the positive impact of the food product is undeniable. Perhaps these burgers can be a small part of the solution, but they will not be the solution.
Second, highly-processed infers many steps from the point of bringing in the raw materials to transforming the ingredients into the food product. These products are complicated and the production process is complex. Quantities of energy are burned to create these burgers at scale, and that is carbon producing. Limit the manufacturing to a few regional plants and the carbon price of transporting by truck or rail go up exponentially.
Third, both Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers are soy products. Soy farming is a mono-culture farm product, meaning the soil is degraded and becomes unusable unless large quantities of artificial fertilizer are added. Corporate model farming produces far more carbon than the dynamic, multiple-culture farms where different crops rotate and complement each other, one crop taking nitrogen out of the soil and another locking nitrogen into the soil.
Further, all soy grown in the United States is GMO. The closest producer of non-GMO soybeans is Brazil, and the carbon cost of shipping between continents is astronomical. Shipping is, far and away, the most polluting form of transportation on the planet. GMO in the case of soybeans refers to soy plants that are immune to glyphosate (RoundupTM). The entire field of nearly ripe soybeans are sprayed with glyphosate. When the plants turn brown and dry out from the chemical, the field is harvested, giving the farmer a higher yield per acre. Meanwhile, glyphosate has been definitively linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma by science and the link has been upheld in court.
The meat eaters of the world will have to change their diet, or the planet will change their diet for them. Technology will not save us or our burgers. Only by changing our habits and making carbon-conscious choices will we save the planet.
These meatless meats are high-tech vegetable patties. Strip away all the hype and hyperbole, and what is left is one set of tradeoffs for another set. Try a meatless burger and if the product is tasty, enjoy the experience. However, much deeper and complex changes are necessary if we are to save our planet from climate change.