You know how it goes when two kids play together. It is all fun and laughter until one child accidentally (or intentionally) hurts the other child. Then the injured child bursts into tears, grabs their toys and runs home. That is pretty much how I feel about my play-date with the food industry. For decades I enjoyed my milkshake and french fries until I ended up as an obese type 2 diabetic. There were definitely some tears and, instead of toys, I took my money . . . and I left! Or, in the epic words of South Park’s Eric Cartman: “Screw you guys, ima going home!”
I left because I finally understood with shocking clarity that anyone who sells a substance meant to be ingested by humans, that alters mood and perception, affects behavior and creates dependence is a drug dealer. Any time you consciously try to get people to eat, drink, inject or sniff more of whatever you are selling, that is exactly what you are doing. More and more we are beginning to understand and accept that segments of the food industry should be regulated like the alcohol and tobacco industry, precisely because we are finally recognizing that they deal in substances that are toxic at high doses, create addiction and are prone to abuse in a percentage of individuals. Of course not all drugs are, or should be, illegal, but we should at least be given all the information to recognize them for what they are and, if we decide to use them at all, do so appropriately and responsibly and at our own risk. Which means they cannot be marketed to children and should not even be sold to children.
Given this understanding, supermarkets are starting to annoy me more and more. Not just because of the constant price increases, crowded aisles and long queues. They annoy me because they sell drugs mixed in with food items! This may sound melodramatic and over the top, but after reading books like Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss and The Compass of Pleasure by David Linden, and after personally experiencing the addictive power of refined and processed foods, there is no doubt in my mind that this is exactly what they are doing! But the worst part is they are marketed in a context that makes them seem “safe,” “innocent,” and even “healthy”. To score some heroin you would have to seek out a dealer, to buy alcohol you would have to produce ID, cigarettes carry prominent warnings and even when you go through a drive through you are well aware that the food you are buying is not particularly healthy for you. But when you make your way through the cereal aisle in a supermarket, trying to discern the difference between a genuinely healthy whole grain cereal and a sugar bomb is not as straightforward as you might think.
The fault for all of this, we are told, lies with consumers, not the manufacturer or the merchant. We hear things like: “Learn to read food labels” – the implication being that if you don’t make good food choices you are either negligent or illiterate . Except that I would cheerfully read the complete works of Shakespeare before breakfast before I will try to decipher some food labels! The lists of ingredients are long, often unpronounceable and many of them I have never heard of, let alone have any idea what they are and how they affect my body. “Make healthy choices” we are advised. Again, I made my best effort and the closest I could come was the fresh produce section. But even there I don’t know where the food comes from, how it was grown, how far it travelled and how fresh it is. Furthermore, in my supermarket the fresh produce section is right next to the bakery, which, let’s face it, might as well be a crack house!
These days, trying to score a bit of food in a supermarket feels like picking up bread and milk at 11 at night in a bad neighborhood. The best approach is “don’t make eye contact, walk swiftly and purposefully, get in and get out!” Although I do still pick up the odd item at the supermarket, that is pretty much how I approach it. When I go I know what I am there for, I get it quick, pay and leave. No casual browsing in the biscuit section, no picking up boxes in the cereal aisle searching for the “healthy kind” and definitely no eye contact with the sweeties in the checkout line designed to solicit “impulse buys.”
For the rest I order food online from The Ethical Co-op, get a few items from health shops, or visit the farmers markets and artisanal food producers in my area. I then prepare everything from scratch at home. I make my own coconut milk instead of buying the canned variety. I bake my own slow-rising whole grain bread and, more latterly, I have turned my kitchen into an ice cream factory. Because let’s face it, you’ve got to have ice cream!
I am discovering the most amazing insights from the best thinkers we have today on this subject. Yesterday I was spellbound by this panel discussion between Michael Pollan, Robert Lustig and Andrew Weil. Well done to whoever got those 3 on the same couch, you couldn’t ask for better! It is interesting to me that the discussion took place in 2011 and I just watched it in 2013. Does this mean that it took roughly this long for these issues to reach public consciousness? If so that would still be fast, but thanks to the internet I think it is actually almost happening in real time. The fact is I wasn’t interested in this topic in 2011 so I wouldn’t have watched it then. Also, the presenter mentions that this forum had been taking place for 7 years and members of the public were present along with health care professionals. I am really playing catch up here. It seems that there has been a ground-swell of public awareness and dissatisfaction for some time with the current state of our food supply, both in the USA and the countries to which they have exported their diet – my country, South Africa, being one of them.
The ones who will most likely be the last to catch on will be the mainstream food industry. They are famous for saying that they are “just giving the public what they want.” Well, in response to that I would like to say that I am Average Jane Public. I am as lazy, complacent and mainstream as they come when it has to do with issues of diet. I would choose taste and convenience over health every time. Until my health got so bad that this was no longer an option. The food industry should be alarmed that in the last few months someone like me has not only rediscovered cooking, I am making everything from scratch using ingredients I only recently heard of and they don’t supply. This is a dramatic revolution in the life of one person that is being replicated across the globe, as the diseases that result from our diet catch up with more and more people. So now the supermarket, who used to just sell me what they convinced me I wanted, has a whole lot of stuff I don’t want, and very little that I do. For example they don’t carry amaranth, chia seeds or coconut oil and I need all three just for my breakfast!
In the Q&A section of the panel discussion, someone from the audience made an interesting point about “a tipping point of consumer rejection.” What exactly the tipping point is, seems to differ from product to product. I wonder if we are approaching that tipping point for high sugar, refined carbohydrate products, because if so that is a lot of products! I really hope, however, that we engage our brains and don’t just go “low carb,” thereby just creating the next marketing angle for Big Food. Instead we need to go for whole food, as it grew out of the ground, because that will mean real change.
Michael Pollan said something beautiful right at the end that I would like to close this post with: “There are people like you and your neighbors who are building an alternative food system now. And that’s politics too. That’s voting with your fork. Not giving your money to multi-national food companies but building an alternative economy. People want an alternative even if they can’t even express exactly why” – Michael Pollan
That’s the alternative I am looking for, and it is right on my doorstep. I’ll be playing there until further notice and will only consider visiting the food industry again when I am sure they are not going to hurt me anymore. I don’t expect that to happen any time soon.