Posts Tagged ‘Michael Pollan’
First off, I’m excited to say I have a new job!! I’m now doing marketing (mostly graphic design and social media) for a local farmers market association!! Right up my alley, yea? I’m psyched — and loving it.
Secondly, I’m feeling inspired to make a serious change in the way I think about food. (More about my food challenge is below!)
Now, I’ve been here before. Pollan has a way of doing this to me, but I’m not ALWAYS reading Pollan. McDonalds is right next to the Home Depot (seems like my 2nd home, most weekends), and it’s all too easy to grab a 10-piece McNugget and head on my way.
But right now, Pollan has me seriously second guessing that nugget. And the entire food system. And the one staple that makes up an inordinately large part of that food system: Corn.
You’ll have to read the book for Pollan’s great description of corn sex, and how corn’s reproductive habits (among other things) made it perfectly suited for mankind, how we chose it and it chose us, and how we co-evolved to the point where it seriously rules our lives. Forget about robots, Pollan has me convinced it’s corn that’s going to wake up and take over the world.
You’ll also have to read the book for his dive into corn economics: how politics overtook centuries of common knowledge and agricultural good sense, and how the U.S. government (thanks to the Nixon administration and all thereafter) turned farmers into “agribusinessmen.”
Fast forward to 2011: the pastoral Midwestern farm doesn’t exist. One factory farmer feeds about 130 people (that’s the most productive farmer of all time) — all in corn.
Corn is the glue holds the modern food system — as well as all those McNuggets — together.
It’s also a big percentage of the rest of the ingredients. Corn starch and high fructose corn syrup: those are the most obvious. How about maltodextrin? Sometimes that’s derived from soy, but often it’s corn, and it’s in EVERYTHING, it seems. Same with xantham gum, vegetable oil, food starch and modified food starch, MSG, malt (and malt syrup or extract), dextrose, fructose, sucrose, baking powder, caramel coloring (and flavoring), and more. Just try to find something in the supermarket without corn hiding in it.
Going one step down the food chain, try to find meat or dairy from an animal that wasn’t fed corn. Those products generally aren’t labeled, so you really have no idea. But in general, it seems, assume it was unless you know the farmer yourself.
My One-Week Food Challenge
Just a little bit appalled by all this, I’ve decided to challenge myself to eat for one week without ingesting any invisible corn. Now, I pretty much accept that this is impossible, but I’m going to do my best.
Also, I’m allowing myself to eat corn itself — as in, the actual whole vegetable. And I might make an exception or two for corn meal, since that’s the next least processed version of corn, and it’s something I could theoretically make myself without too much trouble.
At Farmer Joe’s this afternoon (similar to Whole Foods), I perused the aisles looking for things I can eat this week. Big brand peanut butter is out (corn syrup). So, surprisingly, is grated mozzarella cheese (all contained corn starch or “cellulose powder,” which I can only assume comes from corn).
Adele’s Sausage is out too, along with most breakfast cereals. Beer doesn’t list ingredients (?), but I’ve read it’s often made with corn products, so there will be none of that this week either. Good thing I’ve stockpiled the wine…
I ended up coming home with: Challah bread, bulk granola, bulk dried mango, and several dairy products which probably break the rules, since I don’t know what the animals were fed: organic Kefir, a block of mozzarella, and a tub of marscapone. I’ll supplement this throughout the week with farmers market fare and stuff from my own garden.
Tonight’s dinner: Homemade pizza. I made the dough myself — this is a 5-minute job and much easier than you’d expect! The sauce was my own as well (canned this past weekend!).
I sauteed up some portobella mushrooms in olive oil and balsamic vinegar and tossed them on top along with an onion a friend picked on a local farm, the mozzarella (grated myself, since the pre-grated bags were full of corn), a little bit of pancetta (rule breaker, since the pig probably ate loads of corn), and globs of goat cheese (goats probably eat corn, too).
It took about 30 minutes of prep and 30 minutes to cook. I’d say it was moderately corn-free, save the animal products and the little bit of cornmeal I used to keep the dough from sticking to the stone.
Tomorrow’s breakfast: Kefir with granola or challah with marscapone and a corn-free jam.
I’m already breaking rules, out of necessity — I just don’t have easy (i.e. convenient) access to 100% grass-fed meat AND dairy, even at most of the farmers markets! And of all places, the Bay Area probably has the most access in the country.
This is going to be difficult… I’ll keep you posted.
In my defense, I have been spending an awful lot of my free time actually IN the garden — while it’s getting chilly and the leaves are falling elsewhere, summer has finally arrived in Oakland, along with a lot of my harvest! Green beans, eggplant, corn, tomatoes, carrots — and while all of that is coming out, new stuff gets to go in: I’ve planted snap peas, more carrots, onions, garlic, and salad greens for the winter. Needless to say, it’s been a deliciously busy month!
But I’ve also been distracted by something of a vice: HBO’s The Wire. It’s entirely not garden related, but man oh man… I can’t get enough of Omar, Stringer Bell, and good ol’ McNulty!
Anyone who has no idea what I’m talking about needs a Netflix account.
Which brings me to the bulk of my post — in between Wire episodes (which I anxiously await to arrive in the mail), I’ve been scoping out some of the food and agriculture related films on Netflix, many of which are available to play instantly online!
Now, I apologize for anyone who doesn’t have a Netflix account. But I DID already tell you that you need one, so… no excuses. All of you heading into autumn — with harvests already behind you — might appreciate this list of movies for those cold, lengthening nights, as you dream about what you’ll sow next spring!
Sarah’s Rating: Four Stars (average 3.7)
Two young guys from Boston move to small-town Iowa to grow one acre of corn in an experiment to learn how America’s most subsidized crop is grown and to track where their acre ends up in the food system. It’s funny, informative, and hey — they even visit the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota (a very memorable stop on my own family’s 1995 cross-country road trip!).
Sarah’s Rating: Five Stars (average 4.1)
It’s a classic by now, but this one sticks with me as my introduction to food-related documentaries. The interviews are excellent — you get a sick-of-the-system chicken lady, a salt-of-the-earth all around organic farmer, and of course, my idol (and hopefully future professor), Michael Pollan. If you haven’t already seen it, definitely add this one to your queue (or watch it instantly tonight!).
Sarah’s Rating: Five Stars (average 3.9)
Lesser known, but perhaps my favorite of all the food movies I’ve seen, this one follows a low-income, mostly Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles as they create the largest (14 acres!) community garden in the country — before they’re forced to fight the impending bulldozers of the owners and developers. Tragic, charming, inspiring, and controversial, don’t watch this one when you’re looking for a happy ending.
Still in waiting my instant queue:
The Botany of Desire — Oh, Michael Pollan, I can’t resist.
The Future of Food — Delves into the “unappetizing truth about genetically modified foods.”
Food Matters — How the food we eat is helping — and hurting — our health.
A Beautiful Truth — An investigation of the idea that diet can cure cancer and other diseases.
Super Size Me — Eating nothing but McDonalds, the director takes “a hilarious and often terrifying look at the effects of fast food on the human body.”
Mondovino — A French film looking at Big Wine versus family-run wineries in Europe, South America, and the United States.
Julie and Julia — OK, I know, this one doesn’t quite deserve to be on this list. But lots of women who know me and my love of food, cooking, etc. tell me I have to see it, so here it is.
How to Cook Your Life — Part Zen meditation, part cooking class, it’s about “the role food plays in our bodies and spirits.”
On the plane back to Oakland from my brother’s Washington wedding, I couldn’t help myself — I was hungry! I flagged down a flight attendant and $7 later, all neatly packaged in front of me, I had breakfast: A can of Minute Maid cranapple juice and an adult “Lunchable” style meal with crackers, salami, cheese spread, dried apricots, and a cookie.
With all this packaged, processed food in front of me, I got to thinking — Who made this stuff? And what’s in it??
I’ve been trying lately to pay more attention to food labels and brands. I search for the loaf of bread with the least ingredients (and the most recognizable ones), I’m careful about buying juices that don’t have high fructose corn syrup, and I’ve been trying to educate myself on the unpronounceable ingredients — especially those that are soy derivatives (the last thing I want to do is support Monsanto, monoculture, or the government subsidies that encourage both).
I’ve also been trying to avoid buying products from companies I know do bad things to the environment and their workers (I mentioned Smithfield in my post about becoming a more thoughtful meat eater).
With a prepackaged box of snacks, I didn’t really have a choice on what I was getting — and hungry as I was, I didn’t feel like I had a choice about not ordering it either (I get cranky when I’m hungry!!). So I saved the packaging (except for the can) and vowed to do some research when I got home. Here’s what I found…
GoPicnic Ready-to-Eat Meals
I have to say, I was surprised — and to some extent impressed — by GoPicnic, the Chicago-based company that packaged my meal and sold it to Allegiant Air to sell to me. It’s a small company — all of 11 employees — it’s run by women, and they’re committed to providing food with no partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats), no high fructose corn syrup, and no added monosodium glutamate (MSG).
The company began when somebody realized airlines needed inexpensive, non labor intensive, shelf stable foods — at the time, airlines were losing money on food services. Now, they sell to a few large airlines (as well as general consumers) and have a fundraising program for schools and other groups to sell their meals.
It’s unclear from my research whether or not GoPicnic is owned by an airline or larger corporation, but they do seem to be making some nutritionally responsible efforts.
Old Wisconsin Beef Salami
Old Wisconsin Food Products Company is a subsidiary of Carl Buddig and Company, a privately traded meat processing and packaging company near Chicago. From what I can tell, Buddig is still family operated — Robert J. Buddig is the CEO. That does not, however, mean they are a socially responsible company. Meat packing plants are notoriously dangerous to work in, and Buddig itself was sued (and lost, paying out $2.5 million) in 2004 for discriminating against women and black people in hiring. You’re most likely to see their products in the lunch meat aisle — they sell super-thin-cut packaged lunch meats under the Buddig brand.
Ingredients: Beef, salt, dextrose, lactic acid starter culture, spices, garlic powder, sodium ascorbate, sodium nitrate.
I’ll skip the obvious ingredients — beef, salt, and garlic powder. We know what those are (though I’m curious to know more about the beef).
Lactic acid starter culture: According to one home-made salami recipe, adding “good” bacteria cultures helps prevent the growth of whatever bad bacteria happens to be in the ground beef. The culture produces lactic acid from the dextrose added to the meat, lowering the pH, and the increased acidity makes it hard for spoilage bacteria to grow.
Spices: Like “natural flavorings,” this one is rather mysterious. Spices in salami tend to include pepper, fennel seeds, and garlic. But in food labeling, this is also often a pseudonym for MSG. I can only assume GoPicnic is truthful when they say there is no added MSG in their foods, and that they’ve actually asked. (Apparently, MSG is often mislabeled in order to mislead consumers, so you really never know.)
Sodium Ascorbate and Nitrite: Studies (one in the news just yesterday) have linked consumption of sodium nitrite with cancer in children, adults, and pregnant women (in food, it spawns carcinogenic nitrosamines — this is why processed meats like ham, bacon, lunch meats, etc. should be avoided during pregnancy). Nitrite is loved by meat packers, though, because it preserves meat’s red color (otherwise packaged meats would be an unappetizing gray) and, arguably more importantly, it prevents growth of the bacteria that causes botulism — a prime reason it hasn’t been banned. Sodium ascorbate — or ascorbic acid (vitamin C) — is added because it helps prevent the formation of nitrosamines, reducing this problem. Regardless, the Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends avoiding nitrites whenever possible. Oops.
Late July Organic Classic Rich Crackers
Organic food on an airplane! That movement really has caught on, for better or for worse (perhaps one of these days I’ll do a post about my thoughts on this). Late July is a family owned company based out of a small town on Cape Cod. It was created by the same family that created Cape Cod Potato Chips (they sold that company to Anheuser-Bush in 1985, bought it back, and then resold it — and its $30 million in annual sales — to Lance, Inc. in 1999). From what I can tell, they still own Late July.
Ingredients: Organic wheat flour, organic evaporated cane juice, organic oleic safflower oil and/or organic oleic sunflower oil, organic palm oil, sea salt, leavening (baking soda, ammonium bicarbonate, cream of tartar), soy lecithin, enzymes.
Oleic oils: High oleic oils are those containing at least 80 percent monounsaturated fats. These are fats that may help lower cholesterol levels when they are used to replace saturated and trans fats (no magic bullet, just a better one). Sunflower oil is also high in vitamin E — safflower oil has none.
Ammonium bicarbonate: Pretty simple, this one is what the list says it is — a leavening agent. Your body uses it to balance the acidity levels of fluids and form nitrogen compounds. Excess is converted into urea and either peed or sweated out.
Soy lecithin: A soy derivative, this is a byproduct of soybean oil, extracted either mechanically or chemically (it’s also found in other plants and in eggs; food labels aren’t required to say what chemicals were used to extract it). High in choline — which some people take as a supplement for a healthy heart and brain — it’s used in many foods as an emulsifier. Emulsifiers prevent oils and water from separating (imagine if mayonnaise separated in the jar). It also helps make baked goods fluffier.
This one was harder to research — it’s an exclusive brand of GoPicnic, and I couldn’t find anything about where it’s produced.
Ingredients: All natural cheddar cheese (milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), water, cream, milk, whey, sodium phosphate, natural flavor, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes, sodium propionate, guar and xanthan gum.
Sodium phosphate: This compound is a cleaning agent, food additive, stain remover and degreaser (it’s also used orally before colonoscopies for bowel prep, though this comes with a risk of kidney damage). Who knew? In dairy products, it’s commonly used as an emulsifier.
Sodium propionate: This is a preservative, preventing the growth of molds. It is considered safe by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Guar and Xanthan gums: The Center for Science in the Public Interest notes that while most gums are considered safe, they’re also poorly tested. They’re used as thickeners and are not absorbed by the body (unless you believe the wives tale that gum sits in your stomach forever).
Mariani Ultimate Apricots
Though the apricots themselves are a product of Turkey (hardly local), they’re packed in processing plants pretty close to my backyard — Mariani is based out of Vacaville, Cali., and has five plants in the state. At least one of their plants runs on about 25 percent solar power, according to a press release on their website — I suspect that’s more than most food processors can say!
Ingredients: Dried apricots (product of Turkey), natural flavors, potassium sorbate.
Potassium sorbate: This additive is considered safe, it naturally occurs in many plants, and it’s used to prevent mold and yeast in cheese, dried fruits, wine, syrup, jellies, and cake.
Brent & Sam’s is a subsidiary of Lance, Inc. — since a merger with pretzel maker Snyder’s of Hanover this July, Lance is now the second largest producer of salty snacks in America behind Frito Lay. Publicly traded (their stock is trading at around $21 right now), their combined sales in fiscal year 2010 was $1.6 billion. (And they thought they could fool us with the cute small-business looking Brent & Sam’s logo…)
Ingredients: Semi-sweet chocolate chunks (sugar, chocolate liquor, anhydrous dextrose, cocoa butter, soya lecithin, vanilla), enriched wheat flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), sugar, brown sugar, invert sugar, palm oil, butter, whole eggs, raisin paste, fructose, molasses, rolled oats, soybean oil, pregelatinized starch, salt, baking soda, pure vanilla extract with other natural flavors, whey, cream of tartar, ammonium bicarbonate, vegetable monoglycerides, soy lecithin, natural butter flavor, citric acid, beta carotene, vitamin A palmitate.
Sheesh. Recognize a few of those? Did you also notice that sugars (in several forms) are on this list eight times?? (That includes the raisin paste, since raisins have natural sugars.) Writing up descriptions for all these unrecognizable ingredients would take up far too much space on this blog, so I’ll let you test your research skills. But — in Michael Pollan’s terms — this certainly isn’t a cookie your great grandmother would recognize as a cookie. Hers would have had butter, flour, sugars, egg, milk, baking soda, vanilla, and straight up chocolate chips. Cookie shopping tip: if you don’t feel like making your own, buy from a bakery instead of a box. The ingredients will look more like grandma’s — and taste more cookie-like than Brent’s.
At some point in elementary school, I remember telling a boy in my neighborhood that when I grew up, I wanted to live on a farm. Not only that, I wanted to be an author and an actress on that farm. All of these dreams were combined in my imagination into a barn-theater that would put on productions written (and produced and acted) by me.
Fifteen years later, I’ve abandoned all interest in theater, but I’m still a writer, and I still want a farm.
The writing part has been easy — after studying English and journalism in college, I was hired as a newspaper reporter at a small local paper in Maine. Oddly enough, it was precisely that job which reminded me of my other interest — about a year in I realized that my favorite stories to write were agriculture-related, and my favorite people to feature were farmers. Between all that folk knowledge and a hands-in-the-dirt lifestyle, farmers are damn interesting people!
So I started growing a few things of my own.
In Portland I planted lettuce, beans, and carrots in Rubbermaid containers on a little shared patio behind my building. When I moved to California in 2009, I was ready to expand.
Steve (my roommate and now-exboyfriend — don’t ask) was brilliant, and found us a penthouse apartment in Oakland with full access to the roof, which is now our garden. Spinach, snap peas, strawberries, carrots, onions, peppers, tomatoes, rosemary, sunflowers, ranunculus, and violets have all graced this space, and I’ve thought since the beginning that this was something worth writing about.
Add to that my growing interest in healthy eating — sparked by books from Berkeley’s Michael Pollan, NYU’s Marion Nestle, and the documentary Food, Inc. — and a lack of meaningful writing in my daily life (I now work in marketing), and the idea for this blog just sort of sprouted.
I’ll be writing a little about my own garden, but also, ideally, about other urban gardens in the Bay Area and beyond. I’ll also be writing about food — how to live off local produce from the farmer’s market and/or your own back yard, and how to successfully navigate the overly-processed food at the grocery store. And, because my interests extend beyond just food and growing it, I’ll throw in a little bit about more general sustainable living, too.
My goal with Urbivore is to encourage and support local and hyper-local food production and healthy consumption of that food. By doing so, I hope to increase sustainability and improve the lives of individuals and the community.
I want feedback, I want ideas, I want collaboration — so please, be in touch, and keep reading!