Frankenfoods: The Enigma of the American Eating Dysfunction

Do an image search online of “American food” and a lot of iconic, familiar foods pop up: macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, hotdogs, fried chicken, French fries, and lots of sugary baked goods.  There’s a reason we have sayings and slogans like “as American as apple pie” and “America runs on Dunkin’℠” (Associated Press, 2006), and why most Americans can recognize a McDonald’s sign before they can read.  We love our fast food, that’s for sure; “In 2011, Americans … spent approximately $130 billion on fast food” (Danna & Jordan, 2012).  The problem is that while most people would agree that fast food isn’t the healthiest option, they don’t seem to know just how bad it is.  Convenience and affordability don’t help things; it’s not that difficult to find fast food, what may be difficult is choosing which particular brand to partake in, though they are all essentially serving the same thing.  Taking a look at just how unhealthy processed foods are illuminates what may be the root cause of several Western diseases.

There isn’t much argument that processing food changes the nature of the food itself; what ends up being the source of contestation is whether these changes are helpful or harmful.  For instance,

Several sources of information suggest that human beings evolved on a diet with a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA) of approximately 1 whereas in Western diets the ratio is 15/1-16.7/1 … Excessive amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and a very high omega-6/omega-3 ratio, as is found in today’s Western diets, promote the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, whereas increased levels of omega-3 PUFA (a low omega-6/omega-3 ratio) exert suppressive effects (PubMed.gov, 2009).

This issue is especially relevant to the concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) industry, and the numbers don’t lie: “Range fed eggs have an omega 6:3 ratio of 1.5 to one whereas the ‘supermarket egg’ has a ratio of 20 to one … North Dakota State University conducted a study on the nutritional differences between grass-fed and grain-fed bison.  The results of that study closely followed that of the egg studies.  The grass-fed bison had omega 6 to omega 3 ratios of 4.0 to one, and the grain-fed bison had ratios of 21 to one” (Mercola.com, 2013).

Why do grain-fed animals have higher omega 6 content in their meat?  Because omega 6 comes from grains, just “one tablespoon of safflower oil contains over 10 g of omega-6 fats” (Kock, 2010).  Normally, this information would not bode well for the grain-based oil industry, but here in the United States, rather than remove the problem, we propose to add a solution to balance the scales.  “Clearly, the problem is that we are not getting enough omega 3,” they say, so we take the omega 3-packed fish oil caplets, and then we find out that “excessive fish oil consumption may be toxic to the liver” (Kock, 2010).  Thus, we continue to deep-fat fry our foods, and wonder why we’re getting cancer, cardiovascular disease, and inflammatory diseases, not to mention huge.  It brings to mind the famous Henry Louis Mencken quote: “For every problem there is a solution which is simple, clean, and wrong.”  How encouraging.

At least omega 6 is a naturally occurring substance, but there are plenty of other ingredients in our food that aren’t quite so basic.  Take high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) for example; which was developed to find a use for the massive amount of corn the U.S. has been producing since the 70’s.  It’s so cheap that it’s cheaper than real sugar, and so all of our yummy sweet things are filled with it, but the jury is still out on whether or not it’s okay to eat.  Recently, there have been a slew of HFCS public service announcements stating that there is essentially no difference between high fructose corn syrup and sugar, and that “it’s fine in moderation.”  But what if it’s not fine?  Studies are beginning to show that it may actually be more harmful than sugar.  “A Princeton University research team has demonstrated that all sweeteners are not equal when it comes to weight gain: Rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same” (Parker, 2010).

It used to mean that “calories were calories” and while it was important to ensure there were some nutrients in those calories, eating either 3,500 calories of donuts or 3,500 calories of fruits and veggies was still going to make you gain a pound.  Not so, according to Princeton, and it may be because the human body actually does not treat HFCS the same in its system.  “HFCS reduces your body’s sensitivity to leptin and insulin, promotes belly fat and increases your blood pressure” (Ogunjimi, 2011).  Leptin comes from fat cells, it is a hormone that controls hunger signals to the brain, and if HFCS causes the body to be desensitized from leptin, the brain won’t know when to tell us to stop eating, which is how we can chow down on a 1,500 calorie cheeseburger and still polish off the strawberry shake.  Insulin is the body’s blood glucose regulator hormone, and having insulin resistance is what causes diabetes.  Mainstream studies haven’t come out and said it yet, but high fructose corn syrup may be one of the leading causes for America’s high rate of Type II.

Next is the subject of the dreaded “trans-fats,” and it’s important to understand exactly what they are and where they come from.  Natural trans-fats occur in ruminants, identified as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and while there are several types of CLA, studies appear to show that natural CLA trans-fat can actually “[reduce] LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglycerides and resulted in less atherosclerosis [thickening of the artery walls] in the aortas” (Knowledge for Health, 2011).  The problem with trans-fats occurs when we manufacture them on our own.  Trans-fats are found in partially hydrogenated oils from vegetables and are used extensively in foods that require a longer shelf life.  However, things may be looking up in the trans-fat department: “The FDA once estimated that approximately 95 percent of prepared cookies, 100 percent of crackers, and 80 percent of frozen breakfast products contained trans-fat.  Now that trans-fat must be listed on food labels, many companies have removed them from their products” (Harvard School of Public Health, 2013).  There is even a trend by some city, state, and federal governments, both here and abroad, to work on banning trans-fats (Laurance, 2010).  The bans have some people rejoicing, and others just upset over losing their ability to make their own food choices, even if it causes costly medical bills and even death from diet-related diseases.

There are lots of things that draw Americans to fast food: the taste, the convenience, the price, and even the uniformity.  You can go to a McDonald’s in Kentucky and one in Washington State and you’re going to get the same menu, the same taste, the same experience.  This is because fast food has revolutionized the food industry here in America.  “Fast food chains used to buy their meat from local suppliers in a local region.   So fewer cattle were used to get the meat … Today a typical fast food hamburger has dozens or hundreds of strips of beef from different cattle, in different regions blended together.   So, if you have one sick cow in the batch, then the risk of getting sick is greater” (Schlosser, 2009).  Indeed, this is exactly how mad cow disease got so prevalent, combined with the fact that, until 1997, factory farms that raised cows were feeding them parts of other cows in order to satisfy their protein requirements (Pollan, 2006, p. 76).

Let’s forget the health benefits of eating right for a moment, and let’s think about the ethics of it all.  Is it ethical for our government to keep subsidizing a crop to make it “cheaper” when in reality, that money comes from the taxes of working citizens?  Is it ethical to be messing with Mother Nature to create food-like products with the only purpose of being a delicious source of empty calories?  What happened to Hippocrates’ logic: “let thy food be thy medicine, thy medicine shall be thy food”?  Americans need to learn that food is not meant to be a therapist, it’s not meant to get you through a breakup or losing your job; food is nourishment: “nour·ish·ment, noun – food, or the valuable substances in food that a person, animal, or plant requires to live, grow, or remain fit and healthy” (Encarta, 2009).  I don’t think a Whopper falls into that category.

If we were eating the right things, we wouldn’t have to scrutinize an ingredient list or nutrition facts table.  If you have to ask “what’s in this?” it’s probably not that good for you.  “Every day, 7 percent of the U.S. population visits a McDonald’s, and 20-25 percent eat fast food of some kind, says Steven Gortmaker, professor of society, human development, and health at the Harvard School of Public Health.  As for children, 30 percent between the ages of 4 and 19 eat fast food on any given day” (SixWise.com, 2009).  There are grown adults now that have to “learn” to like “real food” because they simply have never had it before.  American food culture needs a kick in its size 48 pants; Michael Pollan states “it does seem to me a symptom of our present confusion about food that people would feel the need to consult a journalist, or for that matter a nutritionist or a doctor or government food pyramid, on so basic a question about the conduct of our everyday lives as humans” (Pollan, 2008, p. 16).  We shouldn’t have to wonder about what to eat.  There should be food, it should be healthy, natural, and fresh, and we should eat it.  Period.

what to eat when you don’t eat meat

Some of you have probably heard by now that I am having some trouble with what I’m eating. I mean, there’s a ton of information and opinions out there about what’s good and bad for you and at this point, my head is spinning.

I recently finished reading the 100 Days of Real Food blog, and while the woman who wrote it is by no means an expert, just a mom who wanted her family to get healthy after reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense Of Food, she still appeared to have done some research before forming her opinions.

So now I have my own dilemma: I know processed food is bad is bad for you, but I’m also having difficulty eating meat. I never really ate beef before, but I made some chicken the other night and couldn’t eat it. Last night I made taco meat out of ground turkey and couldn’t eat it. In fact, the smell of it is just awful to me! When my fiancé and I went to Bali Hai in Point Loma for a nice post-Valentine’s Day dinner, I couldn’t bring myself to order anything off of the “land” menu, but I had the Mahi Mahi and didn’t have an issue eating it. So now I’m faced with not only trying to find local, organic, non-processed foods, I can’t even eat the local, organic, non-processed animals! At this point, there are definitely certain things I don’t want to eat anymore (French’s fried onions being one of them, I am supremely confident that there isn’t a single bit of real food in those things), but I don’t think I’m going to be able to go 100% “real” in my diet until I get used to not having meat, I don’t want to go all cold turkey.

I did order a microwavable rice cooker and a sushi press today, and I had already bought some sushi rice (at the Commissary, no less!), so all that’s left is to take a ride over to Point Loma Seafoods and see what kind of yummy crab, salmon, and tuna they have. Hey, at least we’ll finally be able to use that big bottle of Sriracha in the fridge! I don’t think I could cut out fish, I only just started really liking sushi a little over a year ago, and I think the boy would kill me if I told him I wasn’t going to eat it anymore. I also could eat Philly rolls until my stomach literally exploded.

I’m definitely looking forward to learning more about food, and I really need to research where I can find fresh, local, organic food in San Diego. I was going to just go to Whole Foods and call it good, but from what I’ve heard, they’re little better than a regular supermarket, and because of that, the extra expense just isn’t worth it. I did find a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) here in San Diego, but that involves so many vegetables, most of which I’ve never even heard of before, and while I know eating veggies is healthy, I think I need to branch out and learn how to cook them before I spend $60 a week on just fruits and veggies (though they do have a fruit only bag, and even a juicing bag, which I thought would be amazing for people that want to really do a good juicing cleanse).

The real problem is going to be making sure my food choices don’t affect my fiancé too much, as he has told me he can’t afford to make those kinds of diet changes (he’s in the Navy, and while he’s on shore duty now, when he goes back to sea, he won’t be getting unprocessed anything, let alone organic and local!). So I’ve told him that I’m going to teach him how to cook his own meat, since I can’t stand the smell, but he doesn’t seem very happy about it (honestly, I say “tough noogies,” he needs to learn how to make something besides sandwiches, it’s sad). For example, we have that taco meat ready to go in the fridge, and I was going to use it for enchiladas tonight (which he has seen and helped me make a million times) with a few cheese enchiladas for me, but I was exhausted and fell asleep. When I woke up, it was 6:30p and I came downstairs and asked if he had made the enchiladas or anything, and he looked at me like a helpless two year old! Like I had just asked him to please grow an extra head! I’m sorry, but enchiladas are not complicated! Granted, I had not asked him in advance if he would make dinner, but I’m seriously considering going on a dinner strike so that he can appreciate what I do every night, and what I now have to do so that we can eat healthy food, I get enough to eat, and he can have his meat.

A word of advice guys: learn how to make at least one or two meals, please. You have no idea how far that will go when we can’t make dinner and you take care of it by making us more than a freaking sandwich or macaroni and cheese from a box…

The Cost of American Food

The following is actually a presentation I plan to make in my Advanced Composition class in a week or so, so it may not make a ton of sense to you since I wrote it for them, but I still wanted to share.

I knew after reading the first couple of sections of The Omnivore’s Dilemma that I would likely be making some changes in the way I viewed food; I was less sure that these changes in mindset would actually amount to anything, however.  Add to the reading assignments the in-class Movie Nights featuring “King Corn” and “Food, Inc.” and it was pretty much sealed in stone.

While writing my paper, I had a huge subject initially: “The subsidizing of cheap corn has far-reaching, varied consequences and must end” including such “sub-headings” as “The method of food production in the U.S. is unsustainable,” “The methods of producing meat in CAFO’s are unethical,” and “It is necessary to change the way Americans view food.”  WHOA!  The only thing all of these “sub-headings” have in common is that they could all be their own papers!  I wasn’t focused enough, so I decided the concentration of my paper should be on the one aspect that made me realize this:

“If we were eating the right things, we wouldn’t have to scrutinize an ingredient list or nutrition facts table.”

Most of what I’ve been reading over the course of this class has pointed in this direction: that consuming whole foods, which are locally sourced and sustainably produced, is the key to saving not only one’s health, but also one’s environment.  It’s alarmingly simple, but when you dig a little deeper, there are aspects of our culture that make this nearly impossible.

I thought about what I was eating, which was certainly better than what I could have been eating, but still wasn’t all that great.  I watched every single food documentary on Netflix.  Seriously.  I read and read and read and read.  I spent so much time reading that I started getting serious headaches, was fatigued most of the time, and my back was constantly hurting from sitting at my desk reading article after article, food blogs, editorials, news sites, book reviews…  It was exhausting, the sheer amount of information about something I’d never really thought about.

And then I realized that’s what the problem was: no one thinks about this stuff.  People say “we’ve got the USDA and the FDA, they’ll make sure I don’t eat anything that’ll hurt me.”  But that statement couldn’t be further from the truth.  The USDA and the FDA make sure we don’t eat anything that will hurt them.  The overall health of Americans – for lack of a better word – sucks, and yet we profess not to know why.  “No way, it’s got nothing to do with the processed ‘Frankenfoods’ we eat, that can’t be it!”

I’m sorry to say, but from everything I’ve been reading, that’s exactly what’s going on.

Over the course of the last month and a half, I’ve considered various changes to my diet, at the very least, I was checking out labels of the foods I had already to determine if there was corn in them (don’t lie, you all did it too!).  I had already eliminated beef from my diet, because I simply don’t like it, but even before I completely eliminated beef, I eliminated veal.  I couldn’t imagine eating a poor little baby cow that’s starved for nutrients and kept still so the meat would be tender.  Nope.  But then I learned how much the dairy industry supports the veal industry.  I love cheese.  I love yogurt.  Butter.  Milk.  How could I eat this stuff and not be a hypocrite?  Why is a baby cow’s life more important than an adult cow’s, or a chicken’s, or a pig’s?  I started doing some serious soul-searching, the likes of which I’d never encountered, even with years of studying Hinduism.

I don’t have it all figured out yet, but there is one more quote that I think is relevant: “let thy food be thy medicine.”  Hippocrates said it, around 431 B.C.E., and I think there’s a certain level of truth to that.  If we’re getting so sick by eating the processed nightmare of a diet we’ve come to have, maybe we can get better by eating better.  Maybe we really would be able to take fewer prescriptions, need fewer surgeries, and have fewer health complaints.  I don’t want to get all hokey with this, but I did find a website: www.100daysofrealfood.com, and it has some pretty “doable” guidelines for a healthier diet, and recipes to match.  I think I might at least visit a farmers’ market or Whole Foods now.  For the longest time, I was more concerned with price of the food I was buying, but now I’m actually worried about the cost.