Tag Archives: Nutritionism

The Evolution of Pro Food

Like most ideas, Pro Food didn’t just happen. It was the culmination of nearly a decade of thinking, reading and talking about food and related systems, especially over the last six months.

Pro Food’s timing had the good fortune of intersecting with several well established sustainable food movements, including organic food, school lunch programs, Slow Food and a series of thought-provoking food documentaries (e.g., Food Inc, FRESH and King Corn) and investigative books (e.g., Fast Food Nation, Omnivore’s Dilemma, The End of Food).

The following series of blog posts provide the reader with a sense of how Pro Food emerged over the last four months, including several posts that build on the core principles put forward in Pro Food Is, the defining post of the Pro Food idea.

Chronological List of Key Pro Food Posts:

  • Is Organic Food the Answer? (March 18, 2009) – This initial post on Every Kitchen Table frames the need for new food systems connecting more consumers with sustainably grown, processed and transported food. It highlights retail interfaces, sustainability labeling and narrow food product offerings. Read more.
  • Why Community Supported Agriculture Isn’t Enough (March 27, 2009) – Much attention is being given to community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, but these programs are not a scalable solution in dealing with large-scale food system problems. The post provides lessons learned that can be applied to new, scalable solutions. Read more.
  • 10 Ways to Save Real Food (April 14, 2009) – This post offered the first comprehensive list of strategies for attacking what Michael Pollan refers to as “nutritionism”, an effective approach used by food manufacturers to make highly-processed “edible foodlike substances” appear to be on par with wholesome real foods. The list touched on labeling, marketing claims, access, school food and low-income programs, among others. Read more.
  • Can Farmers Markets & CSA Farms Really Grow Sustainable Food? (April 30, 2009) – Direct to consumer food sales are providing numerous valuable lessons for building regionally-focused sustainable food systems. Unfortunately, as this post spells out in detail, they are up against heavily subsidized programs for growing commodity crops as ingredients in highly-processed foods, which received nearly $17 billion in 2006. Read more.
  • 10 Reasons Why “Local”  is Challenging Industrial Food (May 14, 2009) – The sustainable food debate has tended to focus on industry and advocates.  This post begins moving toward the inclusive principle in Pro Food to find effective solutions to meet the needs of consumers based on where they live and what they value. It also introduces transparency and general themes on decentralized food. Read more.
  • Closing the Farm to Table Knowledge Gap (June 19, 2009) – One of the largest factors in allowing our food system to get to where it is today, a system too complex and concentrated for most people to understand, is the gap resulting from people trading our historic farming knowledge for cheap, convenient food. This post focuses on the impacts this is having on our health, the environment and our livelihoods. Read more.
  • Pro Food Is (June 30, 2009) – After six months of intensive focus on food systems and entrepreneurial approaches to helping improve markets for sustainable foods, seven core principles emerged in this landmark post. The intent of Pro Food is to drive these principles into mainstream entrepreneurship and accelerate the development of successful alternative food systems. Read more.
  • Building Out Pro Food (July 6, 2009) – From Zachary Cohen’s Farm-to-Table blog: With the release of Pro Food Is, Zachary Cohen spells out how we can now move beyond the traditional language of American politics, e.g., us versus them, bad versus good, etc. Next up is how to most effectively build out Pro Food from a modest statement of principles into something greater. Read more.
  • Why Pro Food Will Succeed (July 7, 2009) – From Zachary Cohen’s Farm-to-Table blog: Zachary explains how the sustainable food movement is at the point in its evolution where new leadership is needed to push things to the next level. It is at times like this that individuals/entrepreneurs seize the moment and use the tumult to their advantage, which is at the core of Pro Food’s mission. Read more.
  • The First Pro Food Product? (July 8, 2009) – From Fredo Martin’s ihatetomentionit blog: Fredo Martin asks what form Pro Food might take in his thought provoking post. At a minimum, it will be important to relate Pro Food to each stage of the food chain in order to propel alternative food systems forward. Read more.
  • Slow Food with Entrepreneurial Twist (July 8, 2009) – The Slow Food movement has done much to reestablish links between food and terrior (location-specific traits) around the globe. In the US, where the industrial system was already well established, the movement faced an entrenched, centralized infrastructure, unlike what is typical around the globe. Pro Food stands apart in its efforts to revitalize the entrepreneurial side of the American food system. Read more.
  • The Five Stones of Pro Food (July 23, 2009) – With the introduction of Pro Food and the foundation basically set, this post shifts gears by focusing on the things that make Pro Food business ventures unique in the food business landscape. Establishing such competitive advantages will be a key part of realizing the Pro Food vision. Read more.
  • The Pro Food Primer (August 4, 2009) – From Zachary Cohen’s Farm-to-Table blog: Zach offers up a great, more in-depth and narrative-based look at the history of Pro Food. Read more.

This posts provides a Pro Food reading list of sorts, but the idea of Pro Food is surely much greater than any one list or collection of people. Those of us working at the forefront of Pro Food look forward to many new voices joining our efforts. If you have a Pro Food blog post or article that you want us to help promote, please email me at robert.b.smart (at) gmail.com.

Every Kitchen Table and Pro Food are proud supporters of FoodRenegade’s Fight Back Fridays.

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Man v. Nature on Soil and Food: Nature 2, Man 0

While diligently planning my family’s significantly larger vegetable garden (thinking Victory Gardens), especially studying how to care for the soil, I was struck by the similar paths that soil and food have travelled during the industrialization of our food system.

Let me explain.

According to one of my favorite gardening books, Shepard Ogden’s Straight-Ahead Organic, published by Chelsea Green (a favorite publisher), the chapter on Caring for the Soil opens as follows:

By volume, a productive garden soil is 25 percent air, 25 percent water, 40 to 45 percent minerals, and about 5 percent organic matter, including a whole Noah’s Ark of plants and animals ranging from microscopic fungi and bacteria to worms, insects, and burrowing mammals.

Seemed pretty straight forward; until I read the very next sentence:

A double handful of this soil contains more organisms, mostly microscopic, than there are people on Earth.

Granted, this book was original published in 1992, so the world population was approximately 1.3 billion less than today, but there were still an estimated 5.4 billion people on the planet, so we are talking about near-astronomical concentrations for such a small space. Despite this incredible diversity, a fateful decision was made to change how we would feed this highly complex, fertile soil.

Quickly, here are three key contributors to that decision:

  1. German chemist Justus von Liebig’s determination that plants primarily need nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (mid 1800s; you’ll likely recognize this as the “N-P-K” found on nearly every bag of fertilizer)
  2. German chemist Fritz Haber’s method of synthesizing ammonia (won him 1918 Nobel Prize in chemistry; described by some as “father of chemical warfare”)
  3. End of World War II, which left the military-industrial complex with the need for new markets, since demand for explosives and warfare chemistry dropped off significantly

Industry found its way to repurpose factories by industrializing a major component in growing food – “feeding the soil.”  The products? Chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  But it turns out that the industrial food system they built, which has made many corporations a lot of money, can not be sustained (assuming a triple-bottom-line v. profit only perspective). Yes, it produces massive amounts of food, much of it inedible monoculture crops used in feeding livestock and producing sweeteners and oils for processed food.  But the price our soil has had to pay is “a legacy of death, destruction, and pollution that continues to this day,” quoting Shepard Ogden.

How does this relate to food?

Through decades of research (mostly funded by food companies), marketing claims (often contradicting other claims), and hundreds of billions of dollars spent on advertising those claims, we have ended up with food retail shelves dominated by highly processed, fake foods. These “edible food-like substances”, as Michael Pollan likes to call them, provide consumers with one or more key nutrients that are supposedly key to healthy living, at least according to the ideology of nutritionism (read more).

Unfortunately, for consumers, fake food has done a poor job mimicking the actual nutritional value, flavor and experience of highly complex, yet 100% natural, real food.  It wasn’t that long ago that Americans ate real food, which was used in preparing nearly every home or restaurant-cooked meal.

Like soil, we have not come close to understanding food well enough to replicate it in an industrial system. Some may say I’m crazy as they point to the claims and supermarket shelves filled with fake foods. But like the “death, destruction, and pollution” propogated by chemical fertilizers and pesticides, fake food has its own dark side, including obesity, diabetes, shortened life spans, fewer specialty crop farms, dead soil, dead zones in our oceans, massive carbon emissions, bankrupt local economies, etc.

It’s high time we return to a simple organic principle (no USDA labels required). Feed the soil, so the soil can feed the plants, so the plants can feed us. Even better, do so in a way that ensures we leave the soil richer and more productive than we found it – without chemicals.  That, in turn, will allow us to accelerate the supply of real food to replace as much fake foods as we can, as fast as we can.

A tall order, no doubt. But considering the alternative, do we really have a choice?

10 Ways to Save Real Food

Yesterday, I wrote about a confluence of factors that helped create the substantial sustainability problems our food system now faces (see “The Rise and Fall of Nutritionism Ideology“). The post’s title suggests that the “Fall” has occured, but we know better.  I was simply setting up today’s post which describes one coordinated strategy for accelerating what I hope is nutritionism’s eventual decline.

My suggestions primarily focus on the marketing side of food, since people like David Murphy at Food Democracy and others are attacking food related issues at the legislative and policy level.  There are obviously overlaps where lobbying Congress and the Administration will be required, and I look forward to joining coalitions of sustainable food advocates fighting for the necessary legislative changes.

Rather than wade into such political battles, my focus is on a “death-by-a-thousand-cuts” strategy, where regions, retailers and consumers have the power to ultimately rule the day. The following list outlines the major components of that strategy.  I strongly encourage any and all comments, suggestions, etc. to these recommendations, especially if you see something missing!

  1. Food Labeling – Reinstate the Food, Drug and Commerce Act of 1938’s “imitation” label requirement, which may be the most important label for consumers since it instantly identifies fake food.  Taking the food industry head-on faces steep odds, so I am recommending a new breed of food retailers applies such labels on its shelves, moving consumers’ focus from products and packaging.
  2. Industry-Sponsored Research – Outlaw the use of nutritional claims from “independent research” funded by corporate interests, unless the sponsoring companies are listed as the lead in the study.  As long as industry is able to regularly shift its “nutritional orthodoxy” using the sophisticated marketing of these studies, consumers will be kept off balance and less able to make informed decisions on a regular basis.
  3. Regional Food Systems – Accelerate the development of regional food systems that expand the production of sustainable crops and livestock, and allow for affordable local and/or regional processing of those foods, e.g., slaughterhouses.  States and regions should also evaluate land use laws, land trusts and other measures to preserve (and hopefully expand) valuable crop land.
  4. Consumer Access – Rapidly expand consumer access to regional and other (e.g., Fair Trade) sustainable foods, including raw foods and lightly-processed products.  While farmers markets and CSA programs are very popular right now, we must develop new retail formats that bring food to a greatly expanded customer base (see Why Community Supported Agriculture Isn’t Enough).  One caution: This may require some regional foods be temporarily diverted from restaurants and institutions (except K-12 schools) until supply can catch up.  A happy problem to solve!
  5. Food Experiences – Create intimate food buying experiences to build consumer confidence in cooking at home and positively reinforce such behaviors over time.  For example, many farmers market shoppers state that they enjoy talking to the farmer that grew the food they are buying.  It gives them confidence in the food and makes them feel good at the same time.  Now imagine replacing the farmer (who I hope will grow even more real food) with chefs and cooks capable of creating similar positive experiences around cooking that same food.
  6. School Kitchens – Bring cooking back to every school kitchen in America and utilize as much local food as possible, including food harvested from edible schoolyards.  This will help reacquaint a generation with real foods and where they come from, and will be made even more powerful if it is accompanied by a creative and fun “farm-to-table” curriculum.
  7. No Food Marketing Zones – Progress is being made in some school districts already, e.g., NYC, but what I am recommending calls for the removal of all branded food products and related advertising from K-12 schools (exceptions: branded foods used in school kitchens).  Our children need “safe zones” where industry can’t reach them, and where they can objectively learn the pros and cons of different types of foods. District by district we can do this!
  8. No Fast Food Zones – Ban fast food restaurants within an appropriate distance from schools, making it inconvenient or impossible for kids to get there and back during lunch time.  The more we can do to “expand” healthy food options for the children the better.
  9. Low-Income Programs – Provide financial incentives for low-income households to purchase sustainable food by making benefits go further when making such purchases.  While this may require additional funds be made available up front, improving the diets of children and parents in these households offers significant returns on the investment, e.g., better health, better grades, etc.
  10. Food Pyramid – Tear down the long standing food pyramid, which simply repackages the food industry’s play book, and replace it with a message that encourages people to eat less, which is what the U.S. Senate initially recommended in 1977 before an onslaught of industry pressure got them to back off.  We could also channel Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  Or we might consider Harvard’s alternative Healthy Eating Pyramid.

The common theme running throughout these recommendations is improving how consumers (households, really) interface with food at the point of purchase.  Currently, the typical American consmer is at the mercy of the “nutritional industrial complex” that Pollan describes.  What I am envisioning are innovative retail experiences that answer to consumers, not food giants or the government (except as required by law, of course), thus giving consumers back the control over their experience with food.

Thanks to Foodimentary (via Twitter), I have a new favorite quote from J.R.R. Tolkien that sums up this post rather nicely…

If more of us valued food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world.”

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The Rise and Fall of Nutritionism Ideology

We should have known we were in trouble regarding our food system when in 1973 the Food & Drug Administration repealed a section of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 that dealt with “imitation” foods.  According to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food:

The 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act imposed strict rules requiring that the word “imitation” appear on any food product that was, well, an imitation.  Read today, the official rationale behind the imitation rule seems at once commonsensical and quaint: “…there are certain traditional foods that everyone knows, such as bread, milk and cheese, and that when consumers buy these foods, they should get the foods they are expecting…[and] if a food resembles a standardized food but does not comply with the standard, that food must be labeled as an ‘imitation.'”

Hard to argue with that…but the food industry did, strenuously for decades, and in 1973 it finally succeeded in getting the imitation rule tossed out, a little-notice but momentous step that helped speed America down the path of nutritionism.

There you have it.  This relatively simple change allowed Sara Lee’s engineered bread-like edible substance to compete with the freshly baked bread from your local baker (see ingredient comparison).  More important, it allowed manufactured foods to take on the “nutritional orthodoxy” of the day and compete effectively against traditional and real foods on the grounds of latest nutritional fad.  I highly recommend reading Pollan’s In Defense of Food to get a better understanding of the “Age of Nutritionism.”

While I may be stretching the importance of this single event,when combined with other forces you can see with near clarity how we got into our current mess.  Just consider this short list of things that have also been happening over the last 30 years:

  • Concentration of agriculture around large-scale feed and live stock (consolidation of acres and influence)
  • Proliferation of monoculture crops to serve as low-cost raw ingredients in food manufacturing (esp. sweeteners and oils; consumed acres)
  • Federal policies and regulatory frameworks that favored monoculture crops and large-scale food production (pushed small, specialty crop farms to edge)
  • Tens of billions of dollars spent annually on marketing by leading food companies, as well as millions more on lobbying (convinced consumers to buy fake food)
  • Nutrient-based research providing health claims for “imitation” food products and fad diets (kept consumers from easily understanding what they should eat)
  • Plus…those things highlighted in previous posts on unsustainable food and industrial food

What you end up with is concentrated power in agriculture and food, the rapid proliferation and marketing of “edible foodlike substances” (thanks Mr. Pollan), a confused consumer base, and a complex problem to solve.

The question is what can we do about what appears to be daunting odds.  Tomorrow, I will post 10 Ways to End the Ideology of Nutritionism, which I hope us test more boundries and identify where we can concentrate our energies to have the biggest positive impact.

Stay tuned…

 

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Danimals: A Case Study in “Nutrient-Based” Marketing

Earlier this week, my post Experiencing Food v. Thinking Nutrients highlighted how “our instincts seem geared toward detecting sudden changes, while we miss the build up of truly life-threatening situations.”  This weakness is being regularly exploited by food manufacturers bent on making us believe that we eat for nutrients, rather than for the simple pleasures of eating.

This approach makes their job much easier, but creates major headaches and health issues for the rest of us, especially parents, who want to do what’s best for their children.  Much of this starts with making sure kids have the energy (food) to engage in all the joys of childhood, which is why Fooducate’s “Inside the Label – Liquid Yogurt Candy” post on Danimals drinkable yogurt is so disturbing.

Using pop star Hannah Montana to co-market the product (on a Disney web page), cartoon characters on the box, and promoting “LGG” – something I had never heard of before reading Fooducate’s post, Dannon marketing is hitting on all cylinders.  They go further in highlighting Danimals has no high fructose corn syrup, yet substitutes with three teaspoons of good old sugar. As Fooducate points out:

“The fact that Dannon emphasizes the absence of HFCS is another indicator of marketing to confused parents that suddenly think sugar is fine to consume. Both suagr and HFCS are bad in the quantities consumed by today’s youth.”

Dannon Shelf Dominance

Dannon Shelf Dominance

You can get an eye full of all of this on the official Danimal web page, including their claim: “Helping Kids Stay Healthy Everyday.”  You’ve got to be kidding me!  What’s worse?  Check out the visual breadth of Dannon products in the typical supermarket.

It seems the deck is stacked against us, but we have just begun to fight.  For example, my favorite part of Fooducate’s excellent and informative post, which follows the conclusion that Danimals could do a lot better, was the recommendation for using real foods to reproduce a truly health Danimals alternative at home:

“Here’s how to make a Danimal-like treat in 90 seconds:  place a cup of plain yogurt, half a cup of water, a few strawberries, and a spoonful of brown sugar into blender, and mix for 30 seconds. You’ll get all the benefits of Danimals plus real fruit, minus the extra sugar.”

I’ll drink (a drinkable yogurt) to that!

 

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Experiencing Food v. Thinking Nutrients

A funny thing has been happening to American consumers over the last couple decades regarding what they eat.  Actually, its not really that funny, and it reminds me of old “The Boiled Frog” story, which goes something like this:

If you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will leap out right away to escape the danger. But, if you put it in a pot filled with cool water, and then gradually turn up the heat until it starts boiling, the frog will not become aware of the threat until it is too late. 

Keeping in mind that this is a parable, and not factually correct (according to Fast Company), it still makes a great point; like the frog, our instincts seem geared toward detecting sudden changes, while we miss the build up of truly life-threatening situations.

Throughout history, humans have not needed to consult others to figure out what to eat.  We figured it out.  We learned what to look for, especially nature’s markers for “danger.”  And, we did it all without the benefits of industrialized food.  But, with industrial food’s so-called revolution, things started changing.  Like so many things related to food, I really like how Michael Pollan describes what has been happening:

“No idea [nutritionism] could be more sympathetic to manufacturers of processed foods, which surely explains why they have been so happy to jump on the nutritionism bandwagon.  Indeed, nutritionism supplies the ultimate justification for processing food by implying that with a judicious application of food science, fake foods can be made even more nutritious than the real thing.” –In Defense of Food

The evidence supporting Mr. Pollan’s statement above is steadily rolling in, including Marion Nestle’s latest post on Food Politics: “Antioxidants as a marketing tool.”

“Antioxidant nutrients are so important as marketing tools that they constitute their own brand, say British experts on such questions.  Apparently, up to 60% of consumers who see an antioxidant claim on a product label will buy it for that reason.  Despite lack of evidence that additional antioxidants make people healthier (and may actually do some harm), these claims are so popular that food companies introduced nearly 300 new antioxidant-labeled products into U.S. supermarkets last year…

Like the frog in the “Boiled Frog” parable, we can continue being slow-cooked by large food manufacturers. Or, we can wake up to the reality they have created, discount the onslaught of nutrient claims (and counter claims) associated with highly processed food, and begin experiencing the wholesome goodness of natural and organic foods.

 

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