Sunday, March 4, 2012

'Food Product' - the toxic confluence of Capitalism and Addiction

As a family, and mostly through T.'s continuing and exhaustive search for a 'magic bullet' to explain why some foods outside the list of known-allergens cause a huge spike in depression or anxiety in her and the boys, we have learned a ton about the action of glutamates in the human body. This is as close as we've ever come to a unified picture of where food and mental illness come together.

So, a couple of days ago we were driving to the store to get groceries, and our conversation wandered in its nomadic seminar tendency to some of these discoveries, and how Americans deal with food in a psycho-social sense. I came up with a general theory that goes a long ways in explaining why Americans have either actively promoted, or passively allowed, their food supply to become more poison than nutrition. It's all based in the confluence of capitalism and addiction.

Food production is a for-profit enterprise, and the bottom line is maximizing the profit margin, not the health of those who eat the food.

When food is largely for-profit, making it as cheaply as possible and maximizing shelf-life are paramount, as healthy ingredients and spoilage reduce the profit margin.

American culture, with its emphasis on speed and productivity, promotes stress and anxiety, and one of the primary self-soothing habits of Americans is to eat and drink. In a culture where stress and anxiety are omnipresent, self-soothing behaviors must be constantly available.

As a society, Americans are subject to vanity, guilt and related self-loathing when it comes to food consumption and body image, which leads us to seek even more self-soothing, the health impacts of which are exacerbated by turning to the least food-like 'food products': diet foods and diet drinks.

Foods made from natural ingredients like raw sugars, whole grains, and unrefined fats trigger reactions in the body that make them repulsive or disgusting once a certain threshold of satiation has been reached.

At the same time, Americans grow up on a cultural range of foods that emphasize sweetness and a smooth, creamy mouth-feel. We also place high value on the mouth-watering taste known as 'umami'.

Ergo, it makes economic, cultural and psychological sense to create foods that combine all of these factors: make food that is as inexpensive as possible; has a long shelf-life; maintains its desired form over long periods; is sweet and savory; has a smooth, creamy consistency; and can be eaten or drunk constantly, without the inconvenient reactions of the body to 'too much', or our own psyches to things perceived as fattening.

In order to achieve this list of desired traits, the food industry reduces raw food ingredients to a range of chemical substances through processing, and then recombines those substances into 'food product' that bears the necessary hallmarks. Sugar is replaced by corn syrup or non-digestable fake-sugars, for which the human body has no threshold response. Fats are replaced by a variety of highly-processed oils, emulsifiers, gums and extracts, again for which the human body has no threshold reaction. Extra salt and umami-creating 'natural flavors' are added. Expensive ingredients like whole grain flours and meat are supplemented or supplanted by plentiful, cheap (partially due to taxpayer-funded government subsidies), components of corn and soy. Additional stabilizers and anti-spoilage chemistry are added so that food, which would normally separate or spoil within days or weeks of production, can be warehoused, shipped and sold for months to years after it was produced.

The difficulty with this equation is that this form of 'food product' makes it easy to overeat, aggravates conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, and has a dramatic effect on brain chemistry, introducing huge amounts of unbound glutamates, which are converted to glutamic acid in the brain. Put simply, glutamic acid is the substance that excites or 'turns on' neurons, and in people with a wide range of conditions rooted in neurochemical imbalance, these neurons don't get turned back off. This leads to a brain-damaging state called 'excitotoxicity'.

This is to say nothing of the often veiled or outright denied adverse effects of fake-sugars, hydrogenated oils, phytoestrogens in soy and food ingredients so chemically reduced as to trigger the body to treat them as allergens instead of nutrients.

What I think is truly distressing is that even the best sources of supposedly alternative and healthy foods operate according to these same principles. Try to find an artisan bakery in Seattle that doesn't use enriched wheat flour as the base of all their breads. 'Enriched' means grains taken apart and put back together again through processing, combined with vitamins chemically-derived from who-knows-what. In these cases, whether it's organic or not is frequently irrelevant. Organic ingredients sliced and diced in a lab are just as toxic coming out the other side as conventionally grown 'agribusiness' ingredients.

Go to Costco or Safeway, Whole Foods and your local co-op, and compare the ingredients list of most boxed, prepared foods. While you'll see a reduction in the most egregious offenders like hydrogenated oils and MSG as you move across that spectrum, most of these foods are produced according to the same concepts of least expensive ingredients and long shelf-lives. You'll actually see a higher prevalance of non-sequiturs like 'organic soy' at the co-ops than anywhere else.

The only alternative left to those unduly impacted by food allergens or having a high sensitivity to glutamates (recent research is increasingly discovering a huge overlap between the two groups) is to make all of one's food from scratch. This has many benefits beyond simply providing healthy, nutritious food, but it means living a life alienated from the larger society. No more going out for meals at restaurants with friends. No more visits to the local pub with work buddies. In the end, it means refocusing one's view of food in American society as poisonous until proven otherwise. That is a sad state of affairs in a country with as much prosperity and as many alternatives as we are led to believe exist.