Food Politics: What's Safe and Ethical to Eat?
From the onset I want to make clear that this post is going to raise more questions than it is answers. Because I myself am confused. As someone who is not only very health-conscious but also environmentally friendly and socially responsible I closely consider what I eat. I think I generally make good choices. Though, I was once eating quinoa, something I considered to be a crowd-pleaser, when a friend almost yanked the spoon from my mouth and accused me of stealing food from Peruvians. Then I realized that nothing, really, was safe.
There's a bewildering array of reasons why one shouldn't eat this or that. But if you took all of them to heart you'd be left with nothing at all to eat. I think we would all prefer to eat organic, free-range, grass-fed, all-natural, locally grown, sustainably raised with no added sugar everything, but it just isn't possible. The world's population is ever booming, the demand for food ever-growing and doing it the old-fashioned way just doesn't cut it. Most of us either can't afford to eat this way, or simply don't have the access to such ideal food. Knowing all of the below, where do you draw the line? What do you choose to avoid and what do you continue to eat?
Below is a summary of some food politics. I'm sure there's more. I'm not saying any of the below are my personal opinions. I'm just telling you what I heard. Please leave a comment if there is something more you can add to the list -- so you can both enlighten us and deepen our confusion.
Meat and/or animal products
Impassioned argument from vegetarians and vegans that consuming animals and their products are immoral, unethical, unnatural and unsustainable. But humans have been eating and thriving on it for centuries and it's use is deeply ingrained in most cultures. While death is alway unsavoury, it is certainly part of the circle of life.
Demand for seafood is booming and it's clear our seas can't handle it. Farmed fished seems like a good idea. Half the fish sold in North America is farmed. However, critics point out that farmed fish is less nutritious (they are less fit), are fed unnatural feed (soy and corn), are disease ridden and thus heavily treated with antibiotics and farming practises have a negative impact on local ecosystems.
Given that most farmed fish is gross, some might turn to wild-caught ones. Greenpeace list 23 species of seafood on the red list that cause harm to the species and/or the environment. Other large wild-caught fish such as tuna, cod, halibut, mackerel, swordfish among others, contain high levels of mercury.
A few religions, cultures and personal convictions look down on shrimp, shellfish and other sea bottom feeders as they feed on parasites and dead matter, and that's gross too. Some report that shellfish is such a common allergen that one can react at any time, even after having consumed it for years. They also tend to be very high in cholesterol. They are, however, high in protein and low in fat and carbs.
Genetically modified foods
Critics say the long-term effects of GMO foods are unknown. Though, as a bio-engineer once explained to me, plants modify all the time on their own. Scientists stepping in is simply speeding along the process.
Conventionally grown foods
It's no secret most fruits and vegetables are treated with pesticides and a whole manner of other things to make them yield more and faster, grow bigger, look better and last longer. Apples are sprayed with wax to look glossier. I believe we would all prefer organic but most of us either can't afford it or don't have access to it.
Industrially processed beef, chicken and pork
Like the food we grow, the food we raise is likewise subject to human manipulation. From drugs and hormones to unnatural feed and living conditions. But the vast majority of us eat this stuff most of the time and most can't detect an obvious negative impact on our health.
I've written previously about my unease with dairy products here. In a nut shell, I find it kinda gross and unnatural to consume the bodily secretions of another animal. We are the only animal to drink the milk of another. And further we're the only animal to drink milk (or own kind or otherwise) past infancy. But dang, melted cheese is awesome.
It's become rather de rigueur in the past decade to go gluten-free. While some people are deadly allergic to gluten most of us can stomach it. If you eat wheat bread, I do recommend the sprouted kind, like Ezekiel bread.[caption id="attachment_95514" align="aligncenter" width="625"] Stock image of bread skull and crossbones on white background[/caption]
More than just wheat the Paleo diet has convinced many to shun all grains. The argument is agriculture grains are a relatively new addition to the human diet (only 10,000 years old). They also contain phytic acid which block some vitamins and minerals and modern practises have diminished grains' nutritional value. However, they have long (10,000 years) been a staple with every culture's diet, supposedly with little ill-effect.
Like grains legumes (beans, lentils and peanuts) contain phytic acid and lectins which inhibit nutrient absorption. Legumes are also a FODMAP, meaning they contain unpleasant digestion issues in some people (gas, IBS). They are, however, a valuable plant protein source.
Technically also a legume, the goodness of soy is a decisive topic. Research is painfully inconsistent; some say it's good, others say that's it's down right bad. Some point to lower cancer rates in Asia (where soy has been part of the regular diet for much longer than in the western world) while other point to the increased cancer possibility due to soy's protoestogens. Some even say soy will cause men to grow boobs. What's undeniable is that soy is a major cash crop and valuable land (rainforests) are being cleared to grown it. Almost soy is also genetically modified. On the flip side, soy is good protein source for vegetarians and a cheap protein source of those who may not be able to afford regular access to meat.
Corn is one of the most widely produced, most heavily genetically modified (88%, by most estimates) and government subsidized cash crops on the planet. Even if you don't eat corn, you're likely getting a ton of it in your diet. Corn and it's variations are added to ketchup, sodas, sauces, candy, bread, soup, breakfast cereal and fed to livestock.
In my own opinion, added sugar is the single worst food on the plant. Worse than merely empty calories, it's highly addictive, has many negative metabolic effects, it's cheap, legal, everywhere and we give it to kids. Yeah, a little sweetness is OK but the extent to which it is present in modern diets is not.
Excessive sodium damages the lining of the stomach, can raise blood pressure increasing the risk of stroke and heart disease. But it plays an important role and electrolyte balance and heightens the taste of virtually everything.
Artificial sweeteners, additives and preservatives
Basically, chemicals and non-food that we add to real food, thereby creating a kind of Frankenstein's monster. Again, hard to avoid completely but I make every effort to do so.
A long-time staple food of Peruvians and Bolivians the recent popularity of the seed (not grain) in the West saw prices rise too high for our South American friends. I love quinoa and don't know how to reconcile this.
Eating local supports local families and farms. The less distance the food has to travel the less environmental impact. But then us Northerners (Canadians and such) wouldn't see hardly any fruit most of the year.
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