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.”

Q & A: Are Carrots and Peas Too High in Sugar?

That was one of the questions from a talk I gave the other night.  A young woman had heard that peas and carrots should be avoided because of their high sugar content.

Do I try to answer her question from a scientific, technical standpoint:  Put peas and carrots in the witness stand and cross examine them?  Or do I step back and ask, “Where did that question even come from?”

On average, we consume 142 POUNDS of sugar each year (that’s as of 2003, up 19% from the 119 pounds we consumed in 1970.)*   Every day, on average, we consume 13.5 teaspoons of sugar, just in the sodas we drink.  A quick perusal of Starbucks’ nutritional information shows that we get another eight to 15 teaspoons in our morning coffee drinks.  The morning muffin we wolf down–even a “healthy” Whole Wheat Honey Bran one–has another 6 or more teaspoons of sugar.  That’s a total of 27.5 to 34.5 teaspoons of sugar–and we haven’t even gotten to lunch yet.

Ever wonder how tough and rough stalks get turned into pure white crystals?  Image from grain.org

Ever wonder how tough and rough stalks get turned into pure white crystals? Image from grain.org***

Given these facts, does it not seem just a little preposterous, a little audacious, to criticize peas for having 1 tsp. of “sugar” per 1/2 cup?  What’s more, peas’  “sugar” is a far cry from the white stuff we spoon into our coffee, or the high fructose corn syrup we gulp down in our sodas.  It requires none of the test tube processing required to mutate a stalk of sugar cane into crystals of white sugar or an ear of corn into a sweet syrup.  And unlike those sweet mutations, the “sugar” in peas isn’t void of nutrients but comes bundled with an amazing assortment of valuable vitamins and minerals (**see below for details.)

A Goggle search pulled up an article that might be prompting these kinds of questions.  That article pronounced peas “high” in sugar based on comparisons to spinach and broccoli (having 8.2 grams, 0.13 grams and 1.5 grams per cup, respectively, but with no mention made that a cup of spinach is one sixth the weight of a cup of peas.)   The article warned that consuming foods high in sugar, even from fruits and vegetables, is likely to cause weight gain and an increased chance of developing diabetes.  It cautioned against eating peas “unless you really enjoy them.”

All I can think is that we should be so lucky if people would eat peas!  In a nation where only one person in ten eats the recommended number of fruits and vegetables and where we consume toxic amounts of processed, refined foods in oversized portions, it would be tremendous if we would eat whole, natural vitamin-and-mineral packed food like peas–and carrots, too.

Maybe, instead of dissecting and worrying about the sugar and calories in peas and carrots, we should be looking at their sweetness as a little gift from nature–so we aren’t stuck eating bitter dandelion greens and bland spinach all the time.  Maybe we should say “thank you,” instead of being horrified–and then sneaking in the freezer for a dip of Chunky Monkey (7 teaspoons of sugar in a 1/2 cup serving).

The bottom line:  Eat your peas and carrots, just like your mother said!

* From GOOD, October 8, 2007, drawing on statistics from Center for Science in the Public Interest. By the way, 142 POUNDS of sugar is the equivalent of 13,995 teaspoons of the stuff–another reason to wonder why we would worry about the 1 teaspoon of sugar in a serving a peas that would amount to only 365 teaspoons annually if we only would eat a serving a day

**From WHFoods.com:  Green peas are a very good source of vitamin C, vitamin K, manganese, dietary fiber, folate and thiamin (vitamin B1). They are also a good source of vitamin A, phosphorus, vitamin B6, protein, niacin, magnesium, riboflavin (vitamin B2), copper, iron, zinc and potassium.

***Transforming sugar cane into sugar also has serious environmental and social justice implications according to an article in Seedling, July 2007

Food Safety: Why Don’t We Just Eat Peanut Butter?

“You Are on Your Own.”

That was the headline of an editorial admonishing the FDA for its failure to effectively regulate the safety of our food and drug supply in the wake of 2009’s peanut butter scare.  While the FDA does indeed deserve admonishment, do consumers also need a wakeup call?  Hello, never completely trust strangers when it comes to the safety of what you put in your mouth.  Put another way, “Is it time that we begin to just eat peanut butter?”

Yesterday, I ground my own at the grocery store. There were just peanuts inside the grinder and what came out of the machine was just plain peanut butter.  While the system isn’t foolproof, its simplicity leaves little opportunity for the introduction of pathogens.  A huge peanut-product factory, on the other hand, offers countless opportunities.

The bigger the operation and the greater the pathogen opportunities, in turn, the greater the regulatory burden.  Introduce operators who are even the slightest bit opportunistic, an economic culture that celebrates profits over responsibility, and now an economic downturn and you have a suck hole for regulatory dollars.  Can we possibly afford an FDA that could effectively police our massive, far-flung food production and delivery industry?  Even if we could pay for that level of regulation, could it really catch all the shenanigans going on?

Just one year ago, in February of 2008 in the midst of yet another food scare, the Wall Street reported on an outside advisory panel that estimated the FDA needs “about 150% added to its appropriated base budget, phased in over five years, [just] to cope with challenges such as inspecting a rising tide of imports.”

The article didn’t translate that “150%” into dollars and cents, but I’m sure it would have been a big number.  And who knows if that big number would have covered extra inspectors for peanut plants right here in the US of A?  Or people to watch out for the tomatoes running around and making their way into salsa?  In fact, can you imagine the dollars it would take to adequately inspect and police every bottle, can and piece of produce that makes up the 40,000 items in a typical supermarket?

Things have gotten to a point where even product manufacturers are getting nervous.  Dole Food Co., the largest producer of fresh vegetables, “recently started using radio-frequency identification tags to track leafy greens as they move from fields to trucks and through processing facilities.”

Does the insanity of this development strike anyone else?  People are starving and yet we’re going to spend precious food dollars on a huge technological system to ensure what farmers have managed to do for ages:  deliver safe, delicious food.

Do you feel trapped in a crazy spiral yet:  As consumers we love having a huge selection of food products from around the world, manufactured into forms as convenient as possible.  And please be sure that everything is ridiculously cheap.  Now we are discovering that “global reach,” “convenience” and “cheap” combine to form a toxic stew.  No one is going to deliver a fantastic variety of convenient foodstuffs to our doorsteps for free.  Food manufacturers have to profit, and if they must sell at artificially cheap prices, something’s gotta give.  In the case of food, lots of things “give” so we can have cheap, appetizing food in unhealthful quantities:  The environment is one of the biggest martyrs.  Food safety is a close second.

So should we be surprised when peanut plants and chicken slaughterhouses and cattle feedlots and salsa factories cut corners on safety and purity!

Hence my original questions:  While we must demand a more effective FDA, is it realistic to rely on regulation alone?  Maybe we consumers really are on our own-at least partly.  Maybe it’s time we pitch in and do a little detective work of our own.  Here are a few suggestions that have given me a measure of comfort.  As you will see, the underlying theme is eating closer to home, and minimizing the hands and factory processes touching  your food:

  1. Start by reading ingredient labels.  Don’t buy products with ingredients you can’t pronounce. Period.
  2. Better yet, nix or reduce the number of factory products you buy.  In other words, have a piece of Great Harvest toast spread with freshly ground peanut butter instead of some packaged peanut butter cracker concoction. The fewer the hands and processes, the less the risk of contamination.
  3. For things like pasta, salad dressing and olive oil, watch which companies you buy from.  Spend a little time finding ones that still value integrity.  If you find a good brand, stick with it, even if it costs a few more pennies.
  4. Buy from the farmer and local producers in your community who will feel really badly (and whose business will suffer immensely) if tainted food gets traced to them.  Community accountability still counts for a lot.
  5. Trim back a little on our tastes for exotic food stuffs.  Begin to explore and appreciate what can be produced close to home where it can be watched and monitored more closely.
  6. Cook more.  With FDA enforcement questionable, you’re better off relying on the sanitation procedures in your own kitchen.
  7. Freeze your own peaches for winter.  Don’t rely on ones that must go through 20 hands to be shipped here from Chile (they never taste very good anyway.)
  8. Wash your own spinach and lettuce.  Get a good salad spinner to make easy work of it.  Don’t rely on the stuff that must go through a factory.
  9. Don’t demand things like strawberries in December when they must be shipped from across the globe.  Be happy with pears and apples from storage.

What–this costs a lot?  Consider the costs of all the hundreds of peanut products that got pitched over the last month, many of them from our own personal larders.  Consider also the cost of expanding the FDA budget by 150%, and likely a lot more.  While this will only translate to a higher tax bill, you’ll likely see a direct price hike to pay for Dole’s radio-frequency identification system.

What–it takes time?  Consider the time cost of lying in bed with salmonella!  Even when we’re not actually sick, there’s the continuous, time-consuming, energy-zapping drain of fear.  We eat three times a day, 24/7.  Do we want each meal and snack to be an exercise in fear or pleasurable interlude on a hectic day?

What–it sounds draconian?  After all, “we’re entitled Americans who should be able to buy anything we can afford.”  Well, maybe it’s not such a free market after all.  Maybe there are some tradeoffs and responsibilities that go with being the biggest consumers on the face of the earth, ever.

Many happy, healthy and safe meals

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