Monday, August 25, 2008

The Food Labyrinth -or- Anybody got a ball of twine?

For some vegans, life is simple. These are people who look at our food situation and see black vs. white, good vs. bad: animal product = do not eat, non-animal product = eat. Done and done, the end. But for those of us who care to look at the greater picture, food choices become significantly more complex. When veganism comes from a place of global consciousness, rather than from a place of morality or personal purity or simply a textbook definition, it becomes a different task entirely and requires a good deal more knowledge about how food is produced in the current age.

The food industry has become a clouded and convoluted lexicon that requires book learning to be even vaguely understood. The proof is in the non-hydrogenated low fat sugar free pudding: that it is so complicated and difficult to sort out is evidence that there is a problem to be addressed. We have become increasingly disconnected with where our food actually comes from, and even what it is made of, making the traceback more and more difficult.

When I get into my heavy research phases, I sometimes go a little overboard both in my study and in my thinking. I have been known to work myself into such a frenzy that I find fault with every food item I encounter: it's not vegan, or it's not organic, or it was shipped too far, or I don't like the company that produces it, or I don't like the store that's selling it - I can find some issue for everything, if I try. I become so bogged down with this knowledge-noise that I literally cannot eat.

At these times I have had to be reminded, gently and sometimes not so gently, that I live in the world that I live in. That until I manage to acquire some land upon which I can build my own cabin and do my own farming, I'm going to have to make some compromises. I am, essentially, going to have to suck it up.

But, some compromises only. That's key. It's not as if, since I can't eat only pure and perfect food, I should say to hell with it and just go buy some steaks produced by Cargill. Armed with good information, it's much easier to make choices that are not only vegan, but that also support vegan values instead of massive animal-product-driven companies, the ones we're supposedly boycotting.

Companies are owned by companies are owned by other companies. By this point most of us are aware that the vast majority of capital assets and money in the world are held by just a select few economic entities (Coke, Disney, Neslte, et cetera). But some connections are surprising. Here's a brief list to show you what I mean.

Silk soymilk: owned by Dean foods, largest milk producer in the world

Smart Deli / Smart Dogs: owned by Con Agra, owners of Slim Jim

Morningstar Farms: owned by Kellogg

Cascadian Farms: owned by General Mills

Odwalla : owned by Coca-Cola

See? If it's a big name in the vegetarian market, it's likely a big name for a reason. There are fortunately some major exceptions to this situation: Tofurkey, Whole Soy & Co, and Follow Your Heart, for example, are all privately owned and entirely vegetarian. There are also fuzzy middle-lier entities such as the Hain Celestial Group who own, among other brands, Soy Dream, Rice Dream, and Health Valley. They are publicly traded, and while some of their brands do contain meated products, for the most part they operate untainted. There are many levels.

But what have I really been talking about here? Processed foods, something that we in the United States eat far too much of. What about produce? A vegetable is a vegetable, right? Oh, I wish. Organic, “conventional”, local, hothouse grown... this too becomes labyrinthine. So, which is better? An organically grown bell pepper that was shipped to you all the way across the Atlantic from Holland, or one that was grown in your state "conventionally"?

That really becomes more of a personal choice. Which is a more important environmental issue for you, petroleum use or pesticide use (which, actually, is also petroleum use)? If you're worried about using up the world's fuel supplies, it's local for you all the way. If Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" changed your life, you'll be going the organic route. Of course optimally, you won't have to make this choice at all and will be able to purchase the fruits and vegetables that were grown organically just 90 miles from your house. Sadly, that doesn't happen all that often. But if your town has a farmer's market, go to it! It's by far your best bet. Even if they don't have everything you're looking for, worst case scenario is that you're supporting local farmers instead of massive industrial farming conglomerates.

* * *

Why is the food world so damn complicated these days? If you ask me (and trust me, I'm not the first to think of it), it's because food is sold as a commodity for profit. People need the same amount of food no matter what; X caloires = optimal adult intake. For example, let's take Jane. Based on her height and weight and age group and average activity level and body type, she needs 1937 calories a day. Each day. The end. Right? No.

Unfortunately that just doesn't work in an economic system based on perpetual growth. Population explosion isn't enough of an increase in annual sales for the food industry, so they end up needing to convince Jane to buy not only cheese but also cheesefood product, and why not throw in the lowfat milk shake with added iron and antioxidants? And look at these frozen meals - so convenient, and it says right here that they're a 'healthy choice'. And hey, you've had a long day - why not refresh yourself with our new Pomegranate Twist fruit beverage (contains no fruit juice)?

They convince Jane that she needs these newfangled items - that they are not only convenient and tasty but are actually healthy and nutritious. And then when she gains weight (because she's been taking in, say, 2300 calories a day instead of the 1937 that she actually needs), they convince her that the best answer is their new line of (rather pricey) diet foods and pills.

Brilliant marketing scheme, really. Too bad about the price... to our health, environment, societal fabric, et cetera.

In truth there are many answers to how and why this all happened. It certainly doesn't help that nutrition is considered "alternative medicine" instead of being placed in every pre-med's core curriculum. But regardless of how we got here the facts of the outcome remain. And the longer we stay ignorant of our whereabouts in this great big mess of a food environment, the messier things are going to get.

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