Food Fads, Hysteria, Science, and Common Sense

I’ve been away from BLOGging for some time and have a lot to catch up on; for the audience of a dozen or so regulars who visit, sorry for the lull, and stay tuned. A lot has happened this spring and summer (while I’ve been traveling, sorting/processing photography and being a husband and shift-worker). This BLOG is going to get lively and thought-provoking again.

We’ll start with a nonpartisan issue about which I’ve had mixed but strong thoughts: organic and “natural” food.

On one side: Much of the popularity of it strikes me as shallow, trite, cultural pop-fad crap–little more than a herd mentality. Advertising consultants, commercial producers and stores like Whole Foods (a.k.a Whole Paycheck) laugh all the way to the bank by profiting off hipsters, herd followers, the scientifically ignorant, anti-GMO paranoiacs, and all who buy into the latest “superfood” craze.

To that end, I read with great interest a piece by a physician and his co-author, an OU law professor, entitled, “The Colossal Hoax Of Organic Agriculture“.

Among other things, they point out that many “organic” pesticides are toxic, and that synthetic ones constitute a tiny percentage of all pesticides in even non-organic foods. Furthermore, how do you know the producers, labelers and sellers are telling the truth about “organic”?

“Organic” standards themselves (even if properly enforced, and they’re often not) let through a lot of unsavory and unhealthy possibilities. As such, they see the “organic” movement as mostly a big fat artifice. And they didn’t even address the inherent nature of green, leafy vegetables to take up and concentrate potentially toxic metals found in soil–whether grown by organic rules or not.

I see the piece not as an attack on the principle of organic foods so much as on as its execution and delivery, more specifically:

  1. Industrial- and small-scale “organic” production involving lack of rigorous standards/enforcement,
  2. Harmful substances that can get into “organic” food despite that label, and
  3. Artificially high pricing targeted to the privileged followers of the culturally popular.

After all, what we now call “organic” as an ideal (actuality aside) simply is how our ancestors in the 1800s farmed by default, before we had 300+ million mouths to feed in this country. What the writer is saying, in a nutshell, is that you’re paying too high of a premium for a label—a label that probably doesn’t represent what you’re actually getting and that makes little difference anyway.

“Organic” and “all natural” really don’t mean a lot, most of the time. After all, arsenic, poison ivy and black widow spiders are natural. They must be good to eat, right? Also 100% natural and organic: the e.coli bacterium, found in everybody’s large intestine and what comes out of it. E. coli can be on your organic or non-organic lettuce if the illegal alien who picked it wiped his butt with his hands before going back out in the field. Listeria, also natural, can sicken and kill people along the food-distribution chain. This has happened

On the other side, I don’t endorse simply buying whatever’s the cheapest and sucking it down either. To be responsible parents and caretakers of our loved ones, we have a beholden duty to pay attention to our food. If I eat something potentially harmful, it’s my choice, not yours…I am knowingly taking that risk and liking the food regardless, or because I have assessed its benefits as greater than its potential harm—not because I choose to be ignorant thereabouts.

By growing one’s own vegetables, one exerts direct control over that side of the diet. I’d grow more if I weren’t so lazy about gardening. [Garden got flooded out this year with two feet of rain in May, and I never replanted.] I recommend this to everybody; even apartment dwellers can get creative and grow some food. Just be advised that, as with everything else, even home-grown vegetables (and animals if you have room) are only as good as the soil from which they sprout and the feed going into their mouths.

Locally sourced food is somewhat better for accountability’s sake; one can interact directly with the growers. “Buy local” still is no panacea, however…

  1. You don’t know whether the seller is telling or hiding the truth about what did or did not get sprayed on the stuff, and
  2. Good luck getting locally sourced bananas, coconuts, mangoes, coffee and halibut in Oklahoma, Brooklyn, Denver, or Idaho.

Our 1800s forefathers, who knew no other way than what we now call “organic” farming, simply did without what wasn’t local…and when local variety was low (as in wintertime or famines), occasionally had nutritional deficiencies to show for it.

Sometimes I’ll pick organic over not, if the price difference is small or none. Like many sensible people who want to minimize harmful things going down the gullets of their children and themselves, I’m also cautious about synthetic growth hormones and will avoid steroidal meat and milk most of the time (hoping that the producer isn’t flat-out lying, which happens as the writer notes). Yet I’m sure I’ve consumed a lot of hormone-fed animal products over a lifetime, before it became a cause du jour.

“Processed” food is not all evil, despite the rampant and thoughtless stereotyping about it. To claim, “I just avoid processed food,” is lazy, anti-intellectual, probably dishonest (almost all food is “processed” somehow) and potentially depriving oneself of something nutritious and tasty too. Instead one should pay attention to the type of processing, the ingredients involved, quality and quantity. I also see the anti-GMO, anti-aspartame and anti-Monsanto hysterias, and other such offerings from the moldy catacombs of the Internet, as unscientific, overblown, tinfoil-hat, paranoid, fear-mongering bullcrap.

Even science shifts. Saccharin once was deemed cancerous…now, not really. Eggs were heart-chokers…now, not so much. All fat was bad…then saturated fat was bad…now coconut (saturated) fat is good. Butter was bad…margarine was good…now butter’s back and margarine is the ultimate processed-food evil. With all the mixed signals, especially over time, what is one to do?

The bottom line is that, despite the latest hype-of-the-week, there is no “superfood”. None! Variety is what matters. Any “food” in excess, and exclusive of others, can be harmful—even water! Barring prohibitive medical conditions (allergies, diabetes, etc.), don’t feel guilty about the occasional indulgence in a “bad for you” item. Let science, personal taste, your medical situation, and common sense–not irrational emotions or media buzz, guide your consumption.

Now I’ll go polish off that last bit of a tub of chocolate-mint ice cream and have a few “Hint of Lime” Doritos before some nanny-state bureaucracy bans them…


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