Are we all just processed corn?
I am reading Michael Pollan’s excellent ‘Omnivore’s Dilemma’ at the moment and wondering what it means to be ‘processed’. Pollan discusses how, in America, much of the food supply for herbivores and omnivores comes from corn. We eat processed corn directly in our sweeteners, thickeners and preservatives. Even if you opt for mainly ‘unprocessed’ foods corn still finds its way into your veggies and fruit as pesticides and wax (used to prevent bruising during shipping). If you buy all organic the mechanisms of ‘industrial organic’ have found a way to make profit through exactly the same practices only using chemicals approved by the government’s standard of ‘organic’. Organic is still mass produced and distributed, disassociating you the consumer from the producer farmer of your food. If you consume animals products the cows, chickens and sometimes fish have been fed mainly on corn – putting more corn into your system. If the truck that drove your food from farm, to central distribution centre, to the place you bought it, was fuelled by ethanol you just consumed more corn. [Ethanol can be made 10 times more cheaply using sugar cane but Americans can’t grow sugar cane so corn is subsidised and ethanol produced from it instead.]
None of this is a problem if you are happy with a diet and lifestyle based on corn. However, if you prefer a little more variety in what goes into your system, and more choice about how your food is produced, then you might start to think about alternatives. For the past week I have been noting down where my food was processed and how the ingredients were created. What I have found with this exercise is that it is much more difficult to track your food back to its source than I would have imagined. My balsamic vinegar (containing mysterious ‘colour’ and ‘antioxidant’ among other things) is produced in Italy and brought here by an Australian company. When I asked Edgell (an Australian company) about where the ingredients for my tomato paste had come from they gave me the following answer:
‘Simplot Australia’s commitment to Australian produce remains strong. We primarily source all our vegetables from Australia and will only source vegetables overseas if we cannot get a supply in Australia.
The Tomato Supreme is primarily Australian grown, the spices however will be sourced from overseas. If the labelling states the product is made from local and imported ingredients (in this order) then the main ingredients are local and usually the spices/ salt etc. will be the imported ingredients.
Currently we are sourcing some Baby Beetroot and Red Kidney Beans from the United States of America, Asparagus from Peru and Mushrooms from the Netherlands as we do not have a supplier at the moment in Australia.‘
All of this is extremely illuminating. But the question I keep returning to is: how processed is processed? If I buy raw almonds someone or thing has still had to go through the process of harvesting and shelling these seeds.They have usually also been pasturised, either with extreme heat or exposure to chemicals to prolong the time they can be shipped and sit on shelves before salmonella develops. Similarly, organic milk has been pasturised to remove dangerous bacteria and increase shelf life, but the cows that produced this milk were fed 100% ‘organic’ corn or other feed. Cows don’t naturally eat corn but with additives their stomachs have learnt to digest it. Organic cows receive organic corn, which is corn processed without synthetic chemicals, but should these cows get sick they are disallowed from taking antibiotics or other chemicals to become well again. Pollan also discusses how, like free-range chickens, cows certified as having ‘access to pasture’ usually means that a door in the barn can be opened to provide access to a small outdoors area when and if the farmer chooses to give it. Free range chickens can also be debeaked (removing a third or half of the beak) to reduce feather-trimming and aggressive behaviours (which are both manifestations of stress – perhaps from a lifestyle largely devoid of sunlight?). How exactly does any of this qualify as ‘unprocessed’? And if some processing can reduce the health risks of our food (from bacteria etc) isn’t that a good thing?
I haven’t come to complete decision yet about what ‘processed’ means to me but I am appreciating being able to find out more about where my food has come from. If you have any more information or thoughts on processed food I would love to hear your comments!