Last week, I read Michael Pollan's fantastic new origins-of-what-we-eat book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. (He was on KUOW's Weekday this morning.) The book follows four meals as much as the author can follow them from start to finish. The first chapter, on conventional food that winds up in a McDonald's meal, could put you off your feed forever. Essentially, the average American diet is corn: Corn-fed beef, corn-fed chickens, beef that's eaten chicken that ate corn, and corn-fed pork. And these animals are all eating all kinds of other stuff, mostly derived from corn and soya. Then corn is turned through various processes into citric acid and other chemicals which are added to processed food.
Because corn almost uniquely captures a greater concentration of a non-harmful carbon isotope, it's easier to run finished food through analysis and find out what percentage came from corn. Answer: a lot. It's not just high-fructose corn syrup (read Fatland for more on HFCS's role in American obesity, especially juvenile obesity and diabetes). It's all the corn products that wind up through the system into what we eat if we eat conventional raised meat or conventionally processed products.
Organic and less-processed products don't have this particular problem because the ingredients tend to be "simple," which, Pollan points out, are actually more complex. When you strip and process corn into many forms, you produce very very simple molecules. But any given piece of fruit, vegetable, grain, or meat has thousands of compounds which we've co-evolved with (see Pollan's previous more entertaining book, The Botany of Desire, about our relationship with tulips, apples, marijuana, and potatoes.)
So, ironically, the simpler you eat in terms of processing, the more complex you eat in terms of nutrition.
Pollan's book was paired for me and my wife last night when we watched Morgan Spurlock's Supersize Me, a jeremiad that was, of course, totally unfair to McDonald's in a completely fair manner. Spurlock ate and drank McDonald's for 30 days and nearly killed himself. But he ate in a manner that only a very tiny percentage of Americans eat because it would have killed them, too. (I say unfairly fair because he did show some alternatives to his view point, including a gangly guy who has eaten over 15,000 Big Macs. Of course, that guy was the exception that proves the rules: He rarely eats fries and they didn't show him with a sugar drink.)
Spurlock didn't look at the foodchain, only consumption and the end result. He interviewed a very brave man about to go through gastric bypass surgery who was willing to share his terrible eating habits and allow his surgery to be filmed. Before the surgery, he drank one to two gallons of sweetened soda a day. He and his wife said they would buy 52 two-liter bottles of soda per week. This is outrageous until you look at the way in which soda is sold and packaged. You buy a Double Gulp (Spurlock showed) from 7-Eleven that contains a half-gallon of soda.
The other highly disturbing moment (out of many mostly disturbing moments) was when Spurlock visiting a middle school with one of the best P.E. programs in the country. The kids all looked healthy and I didn't see a chunky kid in the bunch. However, they were eating French fries, process pastry rolls, and Gatorade for lunch. I see you misunderstand me. Not along with a meal--even like a grilled-cheese sandwich or something--but as their entire meal. Yikes. The school's lunch provider? Sodexho. It turns out a significant minority of schools in the country outsource food service to giant chains that typically offer the ugly food we find in airport concessions and at convention centers.
I don't eat fast food any more. Maybe once every month or two at most. I can't recall the last time I did eat at a fast-food restaurant of any kind. I don't eat fried food much--can't recall the last time for that. For nutrition and weight reasons, I stopped eating potatoes in most forms; I occasionally eat some boiled ones as part of a meal. And I eat a lot of organic food and unprocessed foods. Foods that, when you read the list of ingredients, start with organic brown rice or organic tofu and work their way down to sea salt or beet juice.
After reading Fatland, I stopped consuming anything with high-fructose corn syrup, which was a rare ingredient for me anyway. But did you know that conventional bread is full of HFCS? Nor was I aware!
We live in Seattle, so we have three good mainstream choices for organic, less processed, and/or sustainable food: Trader Joe's, which increasingly carries what Pollan calls Big Organic food (not sustainable, but using organic techniques), Whole Foods (which carries Big and Little Organic as well as conventional foods), and PCC, a cooperative chain that focuses on better ingredients and sources, including a focus on local farms and suppliers. PCC even has a foundation to help preserve farmland.
I'm not a food saint. I'm also neither thin, nor grossly obese, nor anywhere near the weight I should be for long-term health. I'm working on it.