Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Why I'm not pledging anything about food

The food blog Eating Rules is the inventor of "October: Unprocessed" a movement for people to pledge to eat only unprocessed food during this month. Food writers at both the N.Y.Times (Blogger Kicks Off A Month Without Processed Foods) and the L.A.Times (Yea or nay: Are you taking the unprocessed challenge?) have featured this effort in their food blogs, and hundreds of individuals (bloggers or not) have pledged to make the effort.

I respect this blogger for his commitment to encouraging people to eat healthier food. I especially respect his flexible definition:
Unprocessed food is any food that could be made by a person with reasonable skill in a home kitchen with readily available, whole-food ingredients.
Beer, wine, many sweets without refined sugar or HFCS, and many packaged foods are capable of fitting this definition, depending on how they are produced. In addition, he writes: "Maybe you’re not comfortable with my definition of 'unprocessed.' That’s okay, too. Decide what it means to you and take the pledge on your terms."

Recently, (Food Issues) I tried to summarize reasons for which people that choose food: taste, health, cost, and concerns of social justice, the global environment, animal welfare, and religious taboos. I believe that every theoretical food decision -- like buying only unprocessed food, not specific choices like do you want a tomato or a hamburger for lunch -- involves trade-offs.

Deciding to eat unprocessed food ignores many of the other principles for choosing one's diet. There's nothing wrong with it, and it may even be virtuous -- but I prefer to try to consider more of the tradeoffs when I make theoretical decisions.

Some examples:
  • A particular type of tuna may fit a definition of unprocessed but hunting wild tuna may be extinguishing the species.
  • If you cut down the rain forest or destroy a wetland to produce unprocessed beef or farmed shrimp, you may be doing more harm than is done by other means of production.
  • An egg may be unprocessed but full of salmonella because of unscrupulous farming practices. And an egg labeled "organic" may come from chickens in henhouses that are as crowded and dirty as the henhouses that produce other eggs. Bad for chickens. Bad for workers. But unprocessed.
  • Less-processed fruit sugars may not be any better for your health than refined white sugar in small quantities -- maybe a spoonful of sugar isn't the worst thing you can choose.
  • A freshly-baked loaf of bread from a local bakery may have more appeal in taste and even in cost than one that's less-processed but from far away.
  • Or to quote a recent article consider "... the myths that everyone who is complicit in the success of Big Agriculture -- from the Con Agras and the Smithfields of the world on down to the meat market manager who claims his products are local when they're clearly not, just to make a sale -- perpetrates on average folks who are just trying to eat well."
Every one of these is a complex issue with more than one reason for making a choice.

Playing games with pledging to eat a limited diet for a while also seems selfish. I think the inward-looking view about one's own welfare might detract from awareness of people who can't afford to make such indulgent choices. Recent research has suggested that children with access to good-tasting fresh fruit and vegetables are less likely statistically to suffer from obesity and its many health issues. Children in the "Edible Schoolyard" project showed several indications of better health than similar children in comparable school environments without such a program. Poverty is probably the most important reason why people eat badly, and if you aren't poor you are really lucky.

I'm not a perfect -- or even a good -- example of social responsibility, global environmental conscientiousness, or healthful eating. But I try to keep a wider perspective, and not get focused just on what I'm eating right now.

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