November 13, 2008

Yes We Can … Eat Fake Food

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“That organic eggplant hummus sandwich may be good for you, but it’s bad for our books” — warns a small sign sitting on the desk clusters in Mann library. My “ooh, yum” reaction might not be echoed by the person next to me, but neither of us find the sandwich to be anything out of the ordinary.
After all, this is a university well known for the diversity of foods available in our various dining locations. But beyond this cold and cloudy sphere we call the Cornell bubble, that sandwich order might elicit a very different response.
I used to spend my days in a different little upstate New York town, where the majority of people would read that sign and think, “a what sandwich?”
We’re surrounded by things like hummus and eggplant partly because of Cornell’s level of concern with diversity, which hovers somewhere between too much and detrimentally obsessive. I hope that the other reason is because we understand the value of eating food.
Everyone eats, yes, but some of the stuff making it into bellies these days is not food. Supermarket shelves are stocked with flashy products that keep getting further and further removed from actual food.
While the original goal of processing was simply to free our chow from the inevitable fate of microbes, it has shifted dramatically in the past century. In an almost inhumane attempt to make money, the food industry has created increasingly complex products under the pretense that humans’ knowledge of nutrition is better than nature’s.
Cereal is one of the most common of these semi-foods. Popular cereals illustrate the food industry’s clever use of a corn surplus. For example, the main ingredients of Cocoa Puffs are corn meal, corn syrup, corn starch, modified corn starch and fructose — all breakdown products of corn and put them back together in a more chocolaty way.
Citric acid, lactic acid, glucose, maltodextrin, ethanol, sorbitol, mannitol, xantham gum, dextrin and natural flavors are all isolated from corn. This means that your Powerbar, Life Water and even Orbit gum are really just distorted and incomplete versions of the maize plant — with a few spoonfuls of sugar, color and preservatives.
Of course, neither Cocoa Puffs nor Powerbars are meant to represent an ear of corn. In some cases, semi-foods are designed to be a more convenient equivalent to their botanical origin. One very basic example is apple foodstuffs.
We recognize that there are important vitamins and minerals in apples, but fruit takes work to grow and it goes bad pretty quickly. A simple solution would be to squeeze a little juice out of the apple and pour it over some sugar. Topped off with tap water and preservatives, the whole product can be sold for less than an apple, at a fraction of the cost. Apple juice seemed like a convenient way to get the nutrients of an apple until we figured out that fiber is important too.
Applesauce rolls in as the perfect compromise. Though applesauce is convenient and full of fiber, we ran into another problem: most of the antioxidants are in the peel, which is removed during processing. Fortunately, we keep vitamins in powder capsules for such lacking products. At the end of the day, the enriched applesauce presents itself as the long-awaited answer for a cheaper, longer-lasting alternative to raw apples.
Well, not so fast. There are certain compounds in the apple that are there to help us absorb all of the vitamins. We can’t even benefit from all of those supplemented antioxidants without the compounds that grew up with in the apple.
Plus, our old friend corn usually sneaks into apple products, under the disguise of the high-fructose corn syrup, citric acid and natural flavors. Can you agree that it would have made much more economical and nutritional sense to just eat the apple?
This is all easy for me to say, but without an education in proper nutrition, how would someone know that juice has no fiber or that vitamins aren’t well absorbed without the plant’s specific aids? And without much money to spend on food, how can one afford to pay significantly more for a fresh food that gives you significantly fewer calories per dollar?
There are other issues that keep the food ruining industry booming, issues much bigger than this little newspaper space does not allow me to fully discuss. But while you’re here in Ithaca, you do have the choice. So fight for all things non-corn, and eat some real food.