ONE question seldom raised, especially by the food industry, is: Are we really eating real food? Yet this is a question we all should be asking ourselves every time we shop for dinner. As an illustration, the nutritional profile of meat has changed profoundly over the years – especially over the last 50-odd years. Large meat producers are constantly introducing new feeds, new breeds, new growth stimulants, new environments, new antibiotics, et cetera, in the pursuit of maximising meat production from modern livestock.
This has the side effect of altering the intrinsic nature of modern meat – intensive modern animal husbandry techniques are wholly alien to the natural diets and lifestyles of animals and it is not unexpected that the nutritional quality of the meat output would change significantly as a result. For comparison, chicken meat now has double the fat compared to chickens tested in 1940, along with 33% more calories and 33% less protein.
Importantly, modern battery chickens contain only 15% of the level of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, an essential Omega-3 fatty acid) compared to chickens in 1980, less than 40 years ago. This problem is compounded by an increase of 260% in the amount of linoleic acid (an Omega-6 fatty acid), a compound which has been linked to inflammation issues in humans. Add the antibiotics and growth stimulants and it is abundantly clear that when we eat modern chickens, we are eating meat from a creature far removed from its Asian jungle fowl ancestors.
Similar changes are also found when investigating other meats, and perhaps you have noticed it yourself over the years when shopping for food. Supermarket meat, especially pork and beef, have also altered its nutritional profile and getting fattier all the time – this is due directly to the feeds, growth environments and breeding. Animals naturally would not develop huge fatty streaks in the flesh as foraging for food over wide distances would keep their muscles lean – but the densely calorific feedstuff and crowded conditions in farms turn animal bodies into fat-production as well as meat-production systems. The only concern of most industrial farmers appear to be the amount of meat produced (and thus profitability), not nutritional quality to consumers.
Things are not much better in agriculture. Specially-developed high-yield strains of plants are generally grown, not because they have added nutrition, but because they grow faster or provide a greater weight of crops. Apart from contaminating food, the use of pesticides has also been implicated in reducing the amount of vitamins and antioxidants in plants – it is claimed that in normal situations, vitamins and antioxidants are produced by plants as part of its natural defence systems but when pesticides are applied, plants prefer to grow and not bother about producing protective compounds.
The use of chemical preservatives is also necessary to keep the supply of food constant throughout the year; for example, potatoes are often sold months after they have been lifted from the soil. Apart from some possible toxicity of the preservatives, such storage also reduces significantly the amount of vitamins – fresh potatoes normally have around 21mg of Vitamin C per 100g, but this falls to 9mg after just three months.
The over-usage of land also has an impact – the metal selenium is used in human immune systems but this metal is now practically absent from most wheat grown in the United Kingdom, having been depleted from the soil over years of farming.
The troubling road ahead
To be frank, the intensive methods used for animal husbandry and agriculture are probably necessary to satisfy the growing global human population’s demand for food, especially meat. Also, too much of the planet’s wealth is concentrated in an extremely tiny percentage of the people – as such, the vast majority of humans have a (very) limited budget for food and only intensive farming is able to deliver food at affordable prices. The nutritional shortfall in such food is just a consequence which has to be tolerated by many people – even so it is still much better than starving.
Short of a sudden and highly improbable widespread conversion of the human population into vegetarians, there will not be any impetus to change current agricultural practices, even though they are causing severe planetary environmental consequences.
According to the United Nations, the world is barrelling towards a human population of 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion by 2050 and an incredible 11.2 billion by 2100. As such, all the projections point to sustained increases in meat consumption, not declines, over the next decades – leading to the consequent increase of agricultural land needed to grow feed for the animals. An excessive amount of agricultural capacity is already utilised in meat production (rather than feeding people directly) – and this skews the gargantuan economics of agriculture.
It basically means that a sudden collapse in meat consumption would likely be disastrous for the world’s economy. One glimmer of hope might be the recent invention of laboratory-grown meat, which can one day possibly replace gassy animals and dependence on feed crops, even though that may also be disruptive to the current agricultural framework.
However, while we wait for developments, there are a few things which can be done now to help improve our diet and nutrition – these generally do not cost anything extra, and some are listed below, along with adjuvant notes. But please understand that none of the following items are guidelines or rules to follow – they are just common sense things that I do pretty much automatically:
1. Make the effort to get good food, not cheap food – in supermarkets I rarely even look at the processed foods, preferring to mooch around the fresh and organic food sections. If you consciously shop for good food, then it is easy to identify the less healthy items which you may have been duped into buying in the past – and if everyone stops buying rubbish, then eventually they will stop producing rubbish food.
2. Get fruits, greens and root vegetables from local markets, organic or farm outlets – this is easy as I like meeting local farmers and vendors in the village markets anyway. They often say what is fresh and that gets me thinking about how to prepare something new. The downside (or perhaps the upside) is that such produce here is rarely chemically treated so they rot rather quickly – but this just means learning to buy only what is needed until the next market day.
It was originally a shock to find fruits and vegetables decomposing after only a very few days due to the non-application of chemicals – similar items from city supermarkets can often last weeks in the refrigerator. One little aside is that leeks (and okra) contain high amounts of an oligosaccharide called inulin, which is a particularly good source of food for intestinal microbiota. Some notes about fruits and vegetables are on http://www.star2.com/food/food-news/2017/04/23/thoughts-on-superfoods-and-antioxidants-part-2/
3. Get meats from a reputable, responsible butcher – the local butcher is in another village around 6km away, and I usually walk there to get fresh meat. This butcher personally chooses his meats from small farmers in nearby regions where the animals are free to wander on hilly pastures. At the shop, I dictate exactly the cuts of meat I want, rather than juggle packets of fatty plastic-wrapped meat in the supermarket. As I would be walking back, this curtails the amount of meat I can carry with me inside the ice bag – thus helpfully limiting my tendency to over-indulge in good meat.
4. Have a smaller freezer – this ensures that many items would not be stuffed into and get lost in the depths of a large freezer, losing nutrients by the day. This also compels me to go out (and exercise) more often for food, for I also do not have a large refrigerator and everything in there usually has to be cooked/eaten within a reasonably short space of time.
5. Keep a notebook on the refrigerator – a little notebook documents both the frozen and fresh food available at any time. Update the notebook with any additions. On using any item of food, cross it off the notebook. This way, it is also easy to keep a tab on what is needed on the next shopping trip.
6. Just have some meat-free or reduced calorie days – this is a personal thing but sometimes, it feels right to skip eating meat or eat less than 300 calories daily for a few days. To be honest, these days probably do not happen often enough but they are a little contribution to the reduction of animal cruelty and greenhouse gases. I also motivate myself by using any money saved for another good bottle of claret.
7. Avoid eating out whenever possible, unless the cook is worth the effort – this is quite easy as there are only small village restaurants here and we had exhausted their basic menus a long time ago.
But actually this point relates to the time when I was living in large cities. Then it was easier (and lazier) to just pop out to a nearby restaurant and have a meal there. The problems of course are that I did not know the quality of the food, the ingredients used or even if the food was actually safe to eat.
When I was younger in London, I would get food poisoning a few times a year, possibly due to my sensitive stomach. After a while, I became much more discerning about whose food I will eat – and that list is rather small in relation to the number of restaurants in the city.
8. Do not eat at places where food is too cheap – this continues on from point (7) above. For me, there was a high correlation between the price of a meal and subsequent stomach problems. Even if I do not get digestion issues, it often does make me think of what ingredients were used that can allow such cheap food to be sold. It also helps that I buy food and cook myself and therefore aware of the prices, for example, of free-range/organic meats compared to cheap slabs of industrial flesh.
9. Eat a bit of the NATURAL rind of cheeses. Generally, the natural rind of cheeses contains good bacteria which can complement and boost intestinal microbiota – it can also be quite tasty. You can also try Brie, Camembert, Emmental or mildly fermented (usually smelly) cheeses. Do not eat the waxy coating of cheeses such as Edam – these man-made wax shells are not meant to be eaten and can cause digestion problems. Other good alternatives are drinks and yoghurts with probiotic bacteria.
10. Be careful with calories – avoid consuming more calories than you need for your age, height, sex and activity level – overeating can lead to obesity which then leads to other serious diseases. Fats (and cooking oils) are by far the most calorific food items you can ingest, containing around 900 calories per 100g – as a comparison, sucrose (sugar) has 386 calories per 100g. Watching calories also applies to carbohydrates as well – as they are the second most calorific foods that you can eat.
Not all of the above will apply to everyone of course, especially people in busy urban environments – but hopefully the list will give people a few ideas how to enhance their dietary habits.
The first conclusion is a viewpoint that some people may not like. It is simply that a good diet should NOT be about excluding things to eat. A good diet should ideally be as inclusive of as many categories of nourishing foods as possible, provided it contains adequate fibre, nutrients and is not excessive calorific – and this would definitely qualify as a scientifically valid opinion.
Over aeons, our taste senses and digestive systems have evolved to handle a wide variety of nutritious foods, giving us the ability to innately and actively enjoy eating and tasting many kinds of food – it would simply be a great pity to waste this marvellous gift.
Saying that, the second conclusion is that it would be highly irresponsible to not emphasise that circumstances on our planet have changed profoundly – and therefore it would be prudent to reduce our gratuitous consumption of meat (as we simply eat too much of it). We should selectively enjoy meat in a more conscionable way that is not dependent on massive inhumane industrial farms which produce meat with significantly inferior nutritional profiles (while routinely avoiding any public disclosures about the disturbing mass production techniques used).
Responsibly-produced meat would cost more, and therefore we would eat less (like our evolutionary ancestors), but the rewards are reductions in animal cruelty and negative environmental impacts. And it tastes better.
The same sentiment also applies to food we get from plants – whenever possible, we should choose to consume properly-grown produce rather than industrial crops which are flavourless, tainted with chemicals, or both. You, your family, and your children would be eating healthier food – and get to taste once more proper food that is closer to food that suits our evolutionary roots.
Perhaps things would be simpler if people just make some effort to know more about food and where food REALLY comes from – nutritional profiles, production methods, additives used, what the environmental costs are. If everyone understands that, then almost certainly the dietary habits of most sane people would change to some degree, mainly because sensible people prefer to be healthy rather than risk potential illnesses and damage to the planet that directly affects their children. Then the world might somehow avoid the probable catastrophe inherent in our food production systems.
It should be noted that several Western countries are now considering a “sin tax” on meat – the same sort of taxes applied on tobacco and alcohol. The reasons are varied but not least are the health issues associated with over-consumption of meat, and environmental considerations. Also, and you probably do not know this, even China has cut its recommended maximum meat consumption amounts by 46% in 2016.
As a parting analogy, eating too much meat is not unlike driving a fuel-sucking, heavily-polluting trailer truck for every trip to school, or work, or the coffee shop, or other little errands, rather than using a smaller, much more efficient hatchback car – there may well be occasional reasons to use a large truck but certainly it would not be an everyday requirement for most people.
Please note this analogy is not a call for meat abstinence – it is just a way of offering some perspective so that meat can be appreciated and enjoyed as the privilege it really is.