John and I ate at a new Boulder café recently, one with a cute name and homey décor. I liked the selections of fresh vegetables (including peas with a creamy basil sauce), but I was put off by how the menu was meat-laden in disingenuous ways. For most of the dishes, “protein” choices were listed as extra options—except they were all animal meat products. When I asked whether the cafe carried any non-meat proteins like tofu, the server said haughtily, “Oh, we don’t do any SOY products here.” As if SOY were a bad word.
I know soy has problems, particularly of the genetically modified kind. To put U.S. agriculture into perspective, according to the latest USDA census just over 50% of ALL crops grown here are corn and soy. Just those two. And the vast majority of that production is genetically modified and used either for livestock feed or processed for products like high fructose corn syrup, corn sugar, sorbitol, soybean oil, and soy emulsifier, which doesn’t even sound appetizing.
But organic soy for tofu is available and I imagine a Boulder restaurant would have access to that product (especially with the headquarters of White Wave organic tofu located in nearby Broomfield, CO). So in response to the “We don’t carry soy” announcement, I wanted to say, “But you do carry DEAD ANIMAL products.” Whatever. Why not just say MEAT?
I’m not necessarily opposed to eating animals, but I am opposed to the extensive use of resources to raise, process, and market them, as well as to the cruel and disgusting ways they’re raised. (So-called “humane” treatment does not address the first concerns and barely addresses the second.)
Food writer Mark Bittman recently published “The True Cost of a Burger,” a provocative analysis of the externalized costs of a cheeseburger, meaning the costs that aren’t paid directly by the consumer or the producer. Generally for meat, these are environmental costs like excessive CO2 emissions and health problems like obesity with its related chronic diseases. We all pay these costs both personally and socially through increased insurance premiums and ecological degradation, as well as lowered quality of life. In Bittman’s words, “Industrial food has manipulated cheap prices for excess profit at excess cost to everyone; low prices do not indicate “savings” or true inexpensiveness but deception. And all the products of industrial food consumption have externalities that would be lessened by a system that makes as its primary goal the links among nutrition, fairness and sustainability.”
I understand dietary concerns about gluten and the imaginatively named “paleo” diet’s de-emphasis on grains, especially wheat, since what passes for wheat flour in this society isn’t anything like real food. However, I worry that the emphasis on meat over a variety of whole grains will prove costly to our health, as well as to the planet’s. Certainly, the over-emphasis on protein these days seems suspicious.
It seems that the industrial food lobby is pumping up the idea that people in this country need more protein. Obviously, meat producers benefit from this marketing campaign, but it’s showing up in other areas too, like the new high-protein Cheerios, Special K, and Fiber One cereals that not only contain increased protein (from what source they don’t say) but also increased sugar of several different kinds, including–you guessed it—corn sugar and corn syrup. As food nutritionist Marilyn Nestle writes, “And just a reminder about protein: American consume roughly twice as much as needed. Protein is not an issue in U.S. diets. This is about marketing, not health. I guess Cheerios SUGARS, Fiber One SUGARS, or Special K SUGARS PLUS ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS wouldn’t go over nearly as well.”
Sadly, food has become a quagmire these days. We feel guilty for eating some things and get sick from eating others. We don’t know the growing and labor conditions of many of the foods we eat—and many of them are unrecognizable as food, anyway.
That’s why I’m happy to grow vegetables, fruit, and herbs that can be used as close as possible to their natural, unprocessed forms. Like garlic. I spent a little time this afternoon choosing this Saturday’s share of garlic from the beautiful bulbs we’ve harvested the last couple weeks. We had some for lunch, in fact, sautéed with greens and sunflower seeds.
Fresh garlic is hotter and juicier than aged garlic but its garlicky taste is milder, too. We love it as the preamble to all stir-fries and pasta toppings at Stonebridge. Garlic may not be high in protein, but each bulb has wonderful health benefits, is inexpensive, delicious, and easy to store. I’m willing to bet its carbon footprint is relatively low. Not to mention, garlic is simply beautiful! You just can’t get all that in a box or on a styrofoam tray.
Reader’s Note: For a terrific new review of my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, that looks at farming today, see “Weather or Not, We All Eat.”