Walk into any supermarket, and you are greeted with thousands of new foods. 17,000 new ones every year. It seems such a bounty, but it's really all illusion. Most of those new foods are based on only 4 food "species": corn, wheat, rice, and soy. We get 2/3 of our calories from these four foods, which are ubiquitous even in foods that shouldn't contain them. Food manufacturers have found ways to inject them even into the most inocuous of food products.
Grains, which efficiently pull nutrients from the ground and convert them into carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, are the most common crops grown today. This is what vegetarians base their whole diet upon – the fact that these plants produce almost complete "nutrition".
Do they, though?
The Chinese who left China to work in other countries once suffered from beriberi because they ate polished rice instead of leaving the bran with it, as the Malaysians did. The new diet in the new land deprived them of the variety of foods they were accustomed to eat so they relied heavily on rice alone to provide their nutritional needs.
Once, we ate over 80,000 different plant and animal species. Reading old cookbooks highlights that amazingly clearly. We've reduced our species consumption so much that we've actually compromised plant diversity on our planet. Vast fields of a single grain spread for acre upon acre, muscling out so many lesser plants that provide an array of micronutrients we need.
Extracting those nutrients from the plants, or producing them artificially, renders most of the nutrients valueless. The highly touted anti-oxidants, for example, are inert when extracted from their natural sources and then used to "enhance" other foods.
When I grew up, we had a minimum of 3,000 different plant and animal species we regularly consumed – and meat was a side dish, not the main dish. It was used mostly as a flavoring, as in the Backburner Soup that was our winter mainstay. Today, I maintain that heritage of variety in my cooking, and my children have inherited it from me whether they want to admit it or not.
We rarely eat processed foods or "food products". Pasta is our biggest processed food. And Dr. Pepper. But I don't drink Dr. Pepper every day. A 2 liter bottle lasts a week, and sometimes longer. I shop at the ethnic markets and the farmer's markets for locally grown produce. The foods in my kitchen would be recognized as food by my great-great-grandmother, unlike the foods in the supermarket.
Health advocates recommend shopping the edges of the store to get real food – produce, meat, eggs, dairy, fish, and avoiding the center, where highly processed foods like salad dressings, canned soups, dehydrated soup mixes, chips, and frozen concoctions abound. Even around hte edges, there are nutritional pitfalls (Go-Gurt? Eeew, have you read the ingredient list?)
I'd go a step further and say avoid the supermarket altogether.
Humans are omnivores. We need an astounding 100 or more different nutritional elements to remain healthy. It's hard to imagine we can get enough of them from those four food species we most commonly eat: corn, rice, soy, and wheat.
To be healthy, we need to eat real food. Food that is recognizable as food to our ancestors who lived 150 years ago. Food grown near other types of food, animals that eat real food and not kibble of various sorts.
I know there's a movement to consider food "medicine" – all those "heal yourself with food" books on the market, for example, and all the foods that make health claims of all sorts because they've been enhanced with multivitamins or soy. Is it really healthy to eat a bowl of cold cereal that claims to give 100% of your daily vitamin needs? Why would it have to provide 100% of them when cold cereal is, at best, only a portion of a single meal. Isn't it better that it contain less processing and less vitamins so you can then eat a greater variety of foods to be healthy?
I shy away from any food that claims it provides 100% of any particular nutrient or cluster of nutrients, and I am dubious of any food product that makes any kind of health claim – like lowering cholesteraol, or improved "healthy" fats. I am especially wary of foods with long lists of unnatural ingredients added to it. My applesauce should contain apples, water, and a squeeze of lemon juice to prevent browning.
Yes, I know if you chemically analyze an apple, it has a long list of chemicals and micronutrients and so on. The point is these chemicals are in balance in the apple. We can't guarantee that humans have figured out the right balance of these nutrients so any food with more of them added or with a lot of artificial ingredients is suspect.
Don't be afraid to cook your own food, or grow a portion of it, even if it's just a few herbs or tomatoes. Fresh food tastes better. Real food fils you up faster and satisfies you more, so you eat less of it naturally. I can eat an entire bag of store bought cookies and still be hungry and craving more, but 2 or 3 home made cookies is enough. And my home made cookies are smaller than the store bought ones, with ingredients I know well. I use real eggs, real butter, real honey, real sugar, real nuts, real fruit.
Eat lots of different kinds of real food. Monocultures are bad because they require vast amounts of pesticides, fertilizers, and all sorts of other chemicals to enhance the soil because a single crop sucks too much of the soil's nutrients from it. To sustain the land and grow the same crop year after year is detrimental to the earth and leads to the need to chemically enhance these foods so they are as nutritionally balanced as humans can get them. Crops intergrown on a permaculture type basis are healthier, more nutritious and more flavorful. They deplete the earth less because what one plant draws out another may restore.
Support local farmers who grow smaller, more diverse crops. Consider the urban farmer who uses permaculture techniques to gow their crops. Oddly enough, crops grow more abundantly and longer in urban settings where they are sheltered from the worst of the weather's ravages than they do in tradition row plantings in open fields. They also require far less pesticides, fewer fertilizers, and less soil amendments.
Heh, if I thought I could inspire it, I would advocate neighbors getting together to have a neighborhood garden project in their front yards – imagine the Victory Gardens of the war shared among a small community – edible front yards instead of wide expanses of grass, beautiful, abundant, and delicious. I can see neighborhood block parties for canning and preserving the harvest, too, held in conjunction with barbecues and games and music. I don't see it happening unless there is a radical shift in public awareness, but I think it would eventually reduce the cost of food, make neighborhoods and cities far more sustainable than they are now – look at how huge portions of the Gulf Coast suffered in the wake of Katrina and Rita, and how their suffering caused widespread suffering. Look at how the recent freeze will affect the price of citrus juices. One disaster in one part of the country and the whole country suffers. We need to diversify for many reasons, and survival is the best possible reason I can think of. Well, and yumminess.
We need to create a Culture of the Kitchen.