How a Good Food Goes Bad

Sweet Potato Fries--Do they deserve a healthy halo?

Sweet Potato Fries–Do they deserve a healthy halo?

Another good food gone bad.  It was bound to happen.

I’m not talking about some broccoli gone bad in the bottom drawer of the frig.  I’m talking about the industrialization of poor sweet potatoes.

You might remember five or so years ago, when roasting became popular.  In the midst of our roasting fun, someone discovered the joy of roasted sweet potatoes, a/k/a sweet potato fries when cut to resemble French fries.

Back in those good old days, we started with high quality sweet potatoes.  Consistent with healthy roasting technique, slices were tossed with a moderate amount of high quality olive oil (e.g. 1-2 Tablespoons for 2-3 potatoes.)  Next came a sprinkling of salt that could be very moderate because high-quality, unrefined salt was used, bolstered by freshly ground pepper and sometimes other herbs and spices.  Roasted at high temperatures, the outsides browned while the natural sweetness of the potato condensed and intensified.

Not only did these fries add marvelous flavor and delightful color to our plates, they provided us with increased nutritional variety.   They were also great for people who can’t tolerate regular potatoes very well.

Downfall of the Joyous Sweet Potato

Something so ideal was bound to catch the eye of the industrial feeding machine.  First, trading on their healthy reputation, restaurants began offering sweet potato fries made like regular French fries, i.e., drowned in a vat of fat and coated with half a day’s worth of sodium.  In some restaurants, sugar is even being added to complete the addictive fat-salt-sugar triad that is the hallmark of our addictive fast food industry. (1)

Now the sweet potato itself is being subjected to an “industrial transformation,” not unlike that of countless foods from hamburgers to burritos and noodle bowls to stir fry.  Once perfectly fine and healthful, they are now classic examples of junk food.  Evidentially, the same fate awaits the poor sweet potato.  With consumption rising 30% over the last decade, The Wall Street Journal reports that food behemoth ConAgra has launched its biggest bet in years:  “to reinvent the sweet potato for mass consumption, starting with its shape and sugar content.” (2)

What exactly does it look like when a food goes from edible fruit of the earth to industrial product?  Many of industrial ag’s products (note the use of “products” not “foods”) have been a part of the foodscape so long we don’t even notice them or their effects.  But the re-making of the sweet potato is happening right now, under our noses, providing insight into how our modern food system has been shaped and why it no longer serves us.

The Model  ConAgra hopes to make the sweet potato a modern-day equivalent of the russet potato, which in the mid-1940s was “elevated” by entrepreneur J. R. Simplot from kitchen staple to multibillion-dollar franchise.  Simplot’s “genius” lay in developing a standard-sized, brick-like potato that could be efficiently machine-processed then quickly and conveniently cooked for mass consumption.(3)

The Fallout  We have mass consumed alright–right into an obesity epidemic in fact, with French fries a leading contributor.  Besides shifting the national diet away from nutritional balance, Simplot’s profit-driven efforts lessened valuable plant diversity,(4) diminished potato flavor(5) and compromised small farmers in favor of large corporate farms and mono-culture production.(6)

The Process  20,000 sweet potato lines are evaluated annually, from which scientists breed just a few that have a certain amount of sweetness, consistent deep orange color, a brick-like shape instead of pointed ends, a denser weight and the ability to store for a year rather than six months.  (Side Note:  In a world plagued by hunger, isn’t it interesting that millions and millions are being spent to create a boutique sweet potato for unhealthy frying instead of just growing and distributing plain old sweet potatoes to starving consumers?)

The Motivation  Not to be confused as an avenue to boost consumer health, all of ConAgra’s work is dedicated to the production of deep-fried sweet potato products, driven by the hope “that new, improved sweet potatoes will fuel growth and profit in its $2.2 billion potato business.”  As even the Wall Street reporter acknowledged, although sweet potatoes “are widely perceived as healthier, . . . when fried it’s debatable whether they are healthier than regular potatoes.”

The Misfortune  Nature has given us a joyously sweet edible.  Why do we demand more, to begin with, and when we demand more, what careful natural wisdom are we upsetting?  Contrary to modern industrial thought, we can’t have it all.  Just look at the tomato.  Clever engineering made it ripen more evenly for easier harvesting, but oops, that engineering also “contributed to making tomatoes less sweet.” Breeding for a redder tomato had similar unfortunate consequences.(7)  So what tradeoffs will be required to make sweet potatoes sweeter, or more uniform in color or able to store for an entire year?

The Solution   Easy.  No need to engage in civil disobedience, donate all your money to an environmental group or even write a letter.  Just be smart, be wise, be mindful of what you buy–and start making different choices.

Remember the Every Day Good Eating Motto   You can’t buy good nutrition in a box–or a package or at most restaurants.  So go home and make your own roasted sweet potatoes with real, nature-produced sweet potatoes, minimal amounts of fat and salt and NO added sugar!  They are easy.  You’ll love them.  And it will feel so rewarding to make your own, nutritious food.   Here is the recipe.

Notes:

While this isn’t meant to be a scholarly research paper, many authors have carefully researched and documented the industrialized food system.  Here are some citations that might be of interest as you begin understanding what has happened to our food system:

(1)  Fries or Sweet Fries?  Should you be eating either?  Bonnie Liebman, December 28, 2013, Nutrition Action

(2), (3)  “ConAgra Pushes Sweet Potato to Straighten Up and Fry Right,” Ilan Brat, The Wall Street Journal, May 23, 2010

(4)  “Consider that in the Andean highlands, a single farm may host as many as 40 distinct varieties of potato. . . , each having slightly different optimal soil, water, light, and temperature regimes. . . . (In comparison, in the United States, just four closely related varieties account for about 99 percent of all the potatoes produced.)”  Eat Here, Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a global Supermarket, Brian Halweil, W.W. Norton & Company, 2004, p. 71  (As climate change takes hold, we may find ourselves wishing we had more potato varieties with different tolerances.)

(5)  “About 90 percent of the money that Americans spend on food is used to buy processed food.  But the canning, freezing, and degydrating techniques used to process food destroy most of its flavor.  Since the end of World War II, a vast industry has arisen in the United States to make processed food palatable.  Without this flavor industry, today’s fast food industry could not exist.”  (Leads one to wonder whether the loss of a food’s natural flavor coincides with a loss of naturally-occurring nutrients as well.)  Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser, Perennial, 2002, p. 120.

(6)  “Over the past twenty-five years, Idaho has lost about half of its potato farmers. . . .  Family farms are giving way to corporate farms that stretch for thousands of acres.”  Schlosser, p. 118.  Sadly, Brat reports that Louisiana sweet potato farmers are eager to see ConAgra’s entry into the market, believing that the company’s new, $155 million sweet-potato processing plant as a key to their survival.

(7)  “Why Your Tomato Has No Flavor,” Jie Jenny Zou, The Wall Street Journal; “Bring Back Those Tasty Tomatoes,” The Los Angeles Times in The Daily Camera, “Monsanto Digs Into Seeds,” Ian Berry, The Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2012, p. B9:  “For years, seed companies have emphasized shelf-life and durability in shipping at the expense of taste, Consuelo Madere, vice president of Monsant’s vegetable-seed division, said in an interview.”

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