Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The FDA is Trying to Save us from a National Sugar Crash

The person that decided a half-cup would constitute one serving of ice cream must have been lactose-intolerant, or at the very least, they had a bad sense of humor.

In the twenty years that have passed since the Food and Drug Administration deemed one tennis ball as the national standard for a scoop of this dairy dessert, a lot has changed – namely, the size of the average American waistband. More than a third of adults in the United States are obese and the harmful health implications of these extra pounds are widespread. Finally, the government is starting to take notice.

Within the nascent weeks of 2014, the FDA proposed a series of changes to food labeling that would reflect the modern American diet and aim to help Americans reduce their caloric intake. While many government interventions in the dietary arena are often somewhat ridiculous and overreaching, this measure has the potential to make a positive (though likely small) impact.

Numerous minor alterations will be made to the Nutrition Facts label, including bolding the font of the serving size and calorie count, but the most important change is the addition of a new line indicating the “added sugars.” This line would differentiate between sugars naturally existing in the food product as a result of ingredients (such as strawberries) and artificial sweeteners.

America has a big sweet tooth – and some even bigger cavities. As our national sugar intake has increased over the years, so have American rates of diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Though the correlations between what we eat and how it affects our health are widely contested, the root of the issue lies in the fact that we hardly know what we’re eating anymore.

When I settled in last night with a bowl of Cookie Dough and Brownie Chunk Fudge-Swirled Vanilla Ice Cream, I was aware that I was not going to be consuming the suggested serving size and I was aware that the amount of sugar in a few spoonfuls surpassed the recommended daily allowance – but I was making a decision to eat my dessert in conscious, sinful bliss.

The downfall of American health comes from misunderstanding healthy food options just as much, if not more than from excessive indulgence. A simple meal, such as yogurt with granola, seems like a good choice, but a closer inspection of the nutrition labels may reveal that I might as well have had the ice cream for breakfast. The proposed changes to nutrition labels will make it easier for concerned eaters to make smart decisions in the supermarket.

In an effort to win over our taste buds and thereby gain repeat customers, food companies are making their products sweeter. Meanwhile, we’ve continued to eat these products in increasingly large portions, completely unaware of the invisible dangers lurking within. Although those that don’t already read food labels might not be affected much, the FDA’s proposed demarcations will help those that do care to realize just how much sugar is being added to their food.

Unlike the brouhaha that erupted over New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s ban of big bad sodas, the FDA has taken a different approach toward rehabilitating the American diet that is more likely to be efficacious. The nutrition label proposal is aspirational where the soda prohibition was tyrannical.

It all comes down to a matter of individual freedom – something Americans are very touchy about. Bloomberg’s ban took away the right to drink a giant serving of soda; the FDA proposal gives people the option to make an informed decision for themselves. Everyone wants their constitutional right to pursue happiness, even that means pursuing gallons of soda and ice cream on the path to an early death.

It will be months before we know whether or not the FDA’s proposal will be enacted and still longer before we can analyze its impact, but I have hope. A change to nutrition labels isn’t the cure – our national obesity is much more serious than that – but it may help to inspire and inform Americans as they strive for better health without forcing them to do anything ridiculous, like eat only a half-cup of ice cream.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Corn: The Mainstay of the North American Diet

            Native Americans, as the first people to inhabit the Northern American continent, have influenced the lives of all twenty-first century Americans in innumerable ways, but no tradition has remained so prevalent in our society as the farming of corn. While this crop was invaluable to Native Americans, our contemporary culture has fetishized corn and exploited it to excess. With the destruction of Native American values, especially those rooted in animism and a correlating sense of respect for the environment, modern American practices regarding the cultivation and consumption of corn have proved detrimental to the health of our people and our land.
Almost every decision a person makes today, ranging from political beliefs to personal health, can now be linked back to the advent of corn – whether or not this fact has a predominantly positive or negative affect on American citizens is debatable, but it is undeniable that corn has played an integral part in the creation of the United States as we know it today.
            While the major corporations of the twenty-first century are not as resourceful with the entire plant as America’s aboriginals, they’ve discovered infinitely more uses for the corn itself. In fact, it’s been reported that “of the 45,000-odd items in American supermarkets, more than one quarter contain corn”; these products include “disposable diapers, trash bags, toothpaste, charcoal briquettes, matches, batteries, and even the shine on the covers of magazines.” It may be surprising to read the tags on some such items and discover they contain traces of corn, but it’s even more disconcerting to discover that certain food items are more corn than they are what they claim to be.
As Michael Pollan, a journalist who has extensively researched modern industrial food practices, stated, “If you are what you eat, and especially if you eat industrial food, as 99 percent of Americans do, what you are is ‘corn’.” Though America (as the nation that was born only a few hundred years ago) lacks much of a culinary identity beyond the simple, mostly packaged products eaten at annual celebrations of its Fourth of July founding, the cornstalk has become somewhat of a symbol of the country’s food heritage. Americans tend to think we eat a diverse range of internationally inspired meals, but our dishes aren’t much different than what we force-feed our livestock. As journalist Tim Flannery claimed, “all meat is also ultimately corn.” Animals that would be “far healthier and happier eating grass” such as chickens, turkeys, pigs, cows and even salmon now consume kernels daily. The Native Americans who pioneered the use of corn probably wouldn’t immediately recognize the variety that we eat today. Farmers originally grew strains of maize that produced tough, multi-colored kernels, which have been replaced by homogenous, yellow products that seem to come more from a lab than a field.
            The innovations made to corn plants and the way it is farmed has had a large influence on American politics and it’s no wonder the issue has been brought right to our doorstep – as “the biggest legal cash crop” in the United States, corns blankets “eighty million acres – an area twice the size of New York State… like a second great American lawn.” Based on ever-increasing population growth, this isn’t hard to believe. The small-scale farming that fed Native American tribes could not support the vast number of people living on the North American continent today, nor would it allow our country to export such a large quantity of this high-demand commodity; however, this doesn’t mean we should abandon all traditional farming techniques.
Pesticides and machines maintain the cornfields that cover the United States today; the plants themselves grow from seeds that were modified in laboratories to be sweeter and more durable. Beyond the consequences of spraying harmful chemicals on our food and allowing dangerous run-off into the water of local ecosystems, our nation’s hunger for corn has also had serious repercussions for the health of our country’s soil. However, concern for the environment has been prioritized below a focus on our economy by the federal government. Billions of dollars are paidto growers of commodity crops, such as corn, each year as a part of the Food, Conservation and Energy Act (commonly referred to as the “farm bill”), which was part of a federal support campaign for agriculture that began during the Great Depression. These subsidies lower the price of products made with corn, subsequently making a diet high in starches more affordable for low-income households. Though debates about American obesity are prominently heard in the public discourse, it’s imperative that we link the issue back to its source: corn.
            North America has had a long history with corn and it won’t be ending any time soon.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Poultry: No Paltry Matter, Egg-static about Egg-cellent Legislation

Most people have heard that “happy cows come from California” – but what about cheerful chickens? Thanks to recent legislation in the poultry industry, the Golden State is also home to lots of happy hens. In 2008, California voters enacted a new set of housing standards for the state’s egg-layers; because of this law, all hens must be able to stand up, lie down and extend their wings. These may seem like pretty meager demands, but they represent a revolution in animal welfare. As the head of California’s egg trade group explained to a reporter for the New York Times, “Hens in most other states don’t have it so good. Their conditions… are ‘like you sitting in an airplane seat in the economy section all your life.’”

 In essence, the legislation will eliminate California’s “battery” cages and allow the chickens approximately an extra 50 square inches of space. This increase will only add the cost of one extra penny to the price of an egg and potentially decrease the risk of fostering diseases, such as salmonella, amongst the chickens. Though the adjustments have already cost some egg-producing companies a few million dollars, it has been shown that “chickens treated in this more humane way tend to live longer and be more productive.” Producers may also be able to profit off the good publicity, as JW West & Companies has with its “Hens Live” video streaming on its website (though how comfortable a person is watching their next meal walk around probably isn’t exactly proportional to the comfort of the chickens).

California’s hens may rejoice, but the good fight for good eggs in California isn’t over yet. Legislation recently passed requiring that all eggs sold in the state of California – including those imported from other states – must meet California’s housing standards for hens; however, “the attorney general of Missouri, Chris Koster, has decided to sue to overturn the rule in federal court.”

Mr. Koster argues that the rules violate the commerce clause of the Constitution by imposing regulations on businesses in other states. But courts have long held that states can enact food, safety and other regulations in the public interest, as long as they do not discriminate against businesses in other states. California’s egg-production rules clearly meet the nondiscrimination standard, because all egg producers who want to sell their products in the state must abide by them.

The court must dismiss this case and stand by California’s movement towards more humane animal treatment. Other states, including Michigan, Washington and Oregon have instigated similar requirements and hopefully we will soon set a national standard. Across the globe, gains are being made: Australia and the European Union have recently banned battery cages.

As of January 1, 2015 (so long as Mr. Koster’s case is dismissed) all eggs bought in California can be eaten with a clean conscience – but until then, check your cartons to make sure the eggs were laid in state.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Cultural Identity as Defined by Culinary Heritage: A Study on Gastronomy and Nationalism in France and America

The United States of America, as a comparatively young and ethnically diverse country, has earned a place in the culinary world without having ever defined our national cuisine; we are renowned for innovation and industrialization, rather than style or flavor. Our greatest achievements are our simplest; our even greater achievements are improved on with ideas stolen from other countries. Take, for example, an American favorite: the donut. Beloved by all, the donut is a simple, delicious creation that (whether or not it has American origins) has been whole-heartedly adopted by our people and is generally accepted as our very own. Most of us didn’t expect American food to get much better – and then along came the cronut. The brainchild of a chef in New York City, the Cronut® is the offspring of a croissant and donut. It represents a symbolic coming-together of two culinary identities, combining the French cooking tradition that requires skill and training and the American practice of plunking everything into a deep fryer. Underlying this seemingly silly gastronomic icon is an idea much more complex than the many buttery interior layers of the cronut. The revered French gastronome, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin is remembered for stating, “the destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves” (Brillat Savarin). France has a proud history of culinary artistry and is fighting today to maintain its standards in every aspect of food production from farming to presentation. The U.S., however, has no such sentimental or egotistical feelings toward food – our nation values convenience and economy above all. By examining the effects of these differing philosophies, it is evident that a nation’s culinary heritage is crucial to its cultural identity; deficiency in the former reflects badly on the latter.  
Though it is impossible to pin the advent of French cuisine to a single dish, chef or year, it definitively emerged during the later Middle Ages with the Ancien Régime as a result of social stratification. During the centuries that followed, France’s distinct regions developed their own rustic “cuisine du terrior,” while the culinary capitals such as Dijon, Lyon and Paris created a more elaborate “haute cuisine” (Poulain). The pervasive influence of French cuisine on cooking worldwide is evident in the universal use of French terminology and techniques; there are simply no translations for certain practices or dishes. Though we may mangle the pronunciation of some words and bastardize the meaning of others, most people are familiar with a range of French terms from “sauté” to “soufflé.” France is well aware of their eminence. After several years of lobbying by the esteemed leaders of French politics and food, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization added French cuisine – or more specifically the “gastronomic meal of the French” – to the World Heritage List in 2010. The necessity of internationally recognizing “a festive meal bringing people together for an occasion to enjoy the art of good eating and drinking” as a cause worth protecting has been disputed, but French traditionalists argue it is a defense against globalization and a celebration of an intangible national treasure. The man who orchestrated the UNESCO campaign, Jean-Robert Pitte, has had to utilize his experience as president of the French mission for patrimony and food cultures to quell the protests of critics who claim the bid serves only to support the “grandiose self-importance of French restaurants.” Pitte publicly announced that the UNESCO bid was not made as “an affirmation of superiority” or as an attempt to “conserve the recipe of blanquette de veau or boeuf bourguinon,” but rather to honor the “French way to prepare a gastronomic meal, with a succession of dishes and association of food and wines” (Iverson). This fidelity to tradition is inherent to the French national identity. Though the effects of modernization and globalization are widespread in France, the country steadfastly (if sometimes, obstinately) clings to historical convention.
            If any comestible has deep-set roots in the history of French food, it is the baguette. The French revolution was, in part, sparked by the inflated price of bread. As an ingrained staple of the French diet, a 2013 study showing a decline in the consumption of bread incited nation-wide panic and the birth of a campaign to revive national bread morale. The spunky crusade boasts about the health benefits of bread and reminds French citizens that the eating of bread at every meal is an honored tradition in their country. However, it is perhaps a departure from tradition that is the cause of disinterest. Throughout the twentieth century, bakers devised many shortcuts to the bread making process that were time- and cost-efficient, but compromised the taste and texture of the bread (Sciolino). In response to this disconcerting trend, the French government passed a law in 1993 that has come to be known as “The Bread Law.” This legislation decreed that baguettes could only be sold as “pain traditionnel français” if they had “not been frozen at any point during their making, do not contain any additives, and are produced from a dough” composed of only wheat flour, water, salt and yeast. Several additional articles within the law explained other rules for the bread making process and how the baguettes could be labeled (“The Bread Law”). Though bakeries are now held accountable for false advertising, lower quality, cheaper bread is still available for purchase – thus, the law has achieved its goal without causing significant economic harm. The Bread Law effectively protects France’s culinary heritage because it reinforces a sense of national identity founded on the customary baking and eating of bread.
            Though some might ridicule the bread campaign, there is no denying the gravity of another food campaign propagating through French politics, which stems from a similar issue. Legislation for the “fait maison” label has recently been approved and further regulations are being discussed. This “homemade” label is to be marked clearly on restaurant menus in France, certifying that the meals have been prepared fresh at the location. Menu items that are not designated with the label have been created in part through industrial food production. Some activists are advocating for further demarcation that clearly identifies which foods are partially prepared with packaged and frozen foods, though it is unlikely that this motion will succeed (Alderman). While the reaction to the law has been overwhelmingly positive amongst the French, the opposition is understandably less vocal with their opinions; on the one side is a crowd buoyed by national pride, on the other are the monetarily-minded restaurateurs who have integrated industrial food into their menus and will feel the economic repercussions of the law.
            That some restaurants may suffer financial damage when their cooking practices become public may seem unfair to establishments that prepare fresh, authentic meals with the fairly innocuous aid of the occasional frozen fish or vegetables; but in order to serve its purpose of imposing transparency on the French restaurant industry, the “fait maison” legislation must be unyielding. People have a right to know what they’re eating and to be served the quality food they’re paying for. As recounted in the New York Times, one restaurant representative explained, “ a 50-cent factory-made molten lava cake was made to ‘look homemade’ and could be microwaved and sold for 6 euros.” Malpractices such as these, which justify the legislation, are not only an affront to the illustrious reputation of French cuisine, but an offense to the innumerable people that travel to France for fine dining. International recognition for the value of culinary heritage is evident in the proliferation of information pertaining to food tourism and professions in the field. In particular, the rise of the so-called “food Sherpa” as a guide and advisor indicates that the goal of travel is often to partake in unique gastronomic experiences (Gordinier). The “food Sherpa” is paid to escort tourists to dining venues that serve quality, regional dishes catering to the locals, rather than mass appeal. Whether or not a tourist employs such a person, the ambiance of a restaurant shouldn’t deceive them. So long as they do not choose to dine at a fast food chain, they should be served an authentic French meal – not the same dish that they could defrost at home.
Authenticity is a key component in culinary nationalism, but with modern technology it becomes harder to verify. The rapid intercontinental sharing of food products and information has somewhat blurred the “indissoluble link between history and cuisine”. We define “authenticity” based on current and historical social constructs. The ambiguous nature of “authentic” forces us to question the aspects we attribute to it – in cuisine, such characteristics include the regional location, the chef and the ingredients. Though we may buy a variety of pre-prepared ethnic foods and exotic ingredients at our local supermarkets, we’d hardly feel like calling our own home-cooking authentic foreign food. Contrary to what may seem logical, the widespread availability of simulated ethnic foods has augmented the notion that cuisine is connected to its place of origin. Rather than causing the destruction of authentic cuisine, “the movement of goods and the blurring of borders” have instead reinforced “culinary distinction as a marker of identity” (Ferguson). As globalization homogenizes many aspects of society, a nation’s cultural values often depend heavily on their culinary heritage.
            If someone were to divide America’s culinary history into eras, one of the major points would be the start of the “defrost” epoch. The frozen food industry emerged in the U.S. during World War II, though it took several years and some advertising improvements to turn it into the commercial behemoth it is today (Gust). That frozen food saves time and effort for many American citizens at the dinner hour is obvious, but its “role in changing the way we view both food and the act of eating as a social activity,” in particular “our perception of meals,” is harder to concretely document. The convenience factor that makes frozen products so appealing is the very thing that alienates food from most of its pleasures. Laboring in the kitchen may not be in and of itself an enjoyable act for some people, nevertheless, cooking is gratifying; it makes the meal a reward for one’s efforts and heightens awareness of flavor and texture. Cooking fulfills a profound human need to be creative and to nourish others, but our indolence and need for instant gratification (and conversely, our tendency to put a lot of hours in at the office) have overshadowed these needs and altered the very structure of mealtime. Instead of preparing the meal, sitting down to enjoy it and lingering at the table to digest and socialize, Americans tend to eat as quickly as possible, usually alone. The frozen meal has greatly contributed to the American notion that food is fuel and eating is a chore, rather than an indulgence of the senses. This ideology is reflected in the inattentive manner that we consume many of our calories. The ritual of sitting down at the table for the sole purpose of eating or to share a meal with others has largely disappeared in the U.S.; mealtime is regularly an exhibition of our best multi-tasking skills – fork in one hand, the other occupied with an electronic device – and interactions often take place over social media rather than over the tabletop. This devaluation of food and the act of eating is an integral part of America’s conflicted culinary heritage.
The United States was essentially born with the first English colonies that settled on the East Coast, many of whom starved to death in the unfamiliar environment. Those that survived began a farming tradition that would characterize our nation, even as it came to be known as a “melting pot” of different cultures brought over by immigrants. Following the two World Wars, the U.S. emerged as an industrial nation, an identity that extended to our food production. In light of these events, it is understandable that America never created a solid foundation from which to build a sense of culinary nationalism. As a result, Americans have developed a complicated relationship with food that has unhealthy consequences. Over the years, Americans have notoriously experimented with countless “fad diets” and people tend to define themselves by what they don’t eat (gluten, dairy, meat, carbs, etc.), rather than what they do. Many people aspiring to better physical health have ascribed to the pseudo-scientific theory of “nutritionism,” wherein the value of food comes from the sum of its nutrients. Michael Pollan, a leader in the intellectual discourse of food politics, has spoken out against this belief, asserting that the pleasure of eating should not be surpassed by the science of eating and, moreover, “even the simplest food is a hopelessly complex thing to study, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in complex and dynamic relation to one another” (Pollan, “Unhappy Meals”). That food, in the minds of Americans, is rife with confusion and often resentment reveals the ways in which we suffer in the absence of culinary nationalism.
            The disparity between French and American food philosophy can be observed to some extent in the 2011 Society at a Glance study performed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Americans spend approximately 30 minutes a day preparing their meals (cleanup time included) and approximately 1.25 hours eating. The average French citizen, however, spends roughly 48 minutes cooking and over 2 hours eating (OECD). These differences may be small, but a 2009 study jointly conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, World Bank and Euromonitor International showed that Americans spend 6% of their household income on food, while the French spend more than double this amount at 14% (Battistoni). The price of food items depends on a number of factors – namely government regulation of agriculture, importation and production – which accounts for some of the difference in percentage between American and French grocery expenditures; however, cultural conventions play a significant role, too. Traditional French meals include a variety of regional cheeses, charcuterie and produce that must be kept fresh and are, therefore, expensive; in contrast, meals in the U.S. often center on packaged, canned or frozen foods. It’s not surprising that Americans are spending the least of their money on food but are consuming the most calories (Kuang). We can see the effect of this disparity based on our comparative national obesity rates. In 2011 the American obesity rate was recorded as the highest in the world at 28.5%. The obesity rate of France was less than half that: 12.9% (Franco).
            Americans are paying less for their food and ingesting more caloric products because we are a nation largely populated by apathetic consumers. We knowingly and unknowingly accept many food industry practices that the French have declared illegal, or at the very least, abhorrent. The news shows us impassioned protestations against genetically modified organisms in France and we shrug our shoulders. Here, few have tried to ban GMOs because few are aware that we use them and even fewer are at all concerned about their possible adverse effects. In our country, we abide by the Costco way of thinking; we like mass quantities for reduced prices. Sometimes our methods, particularly in the meat industry, aren’t very pretty: we stuff our cows with GMO corn and hormones, feed our pigs antibiotics, and rinse our chickens in chlorine – but we don’t mind, so long as we don’t have to see it (Beville, Charles, Fahsi). When it comes to food, we’ve adapted the French philosophy of “laissez-faire” much better than the French have.
            Though Americans want nothing to do with the food production process and have little respect for the act of eating, we adore the spectacle of food. In a land where no one has the time to prepare dinner from scratch, it’s normal to devote hours to reading food blogs and watching other people eat on television. It seems we love food all the more when we don’t prepare it. This love is made public on social media sites, such as Instagram, as the sinful, often messy, sometimes beautiful images of “food porn” seen on most feeds. Michael Pollan documented this phenomenon in his article “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” wherein he discusses how cooking has become a “spectator sport” (Pollan, “Out of the Kitchen”). The history of cooking television shows began in the United States with Julia Child’s, “The French Chef.” It was an honest attempt to educate the American populace, but Child failed to instill the average American with her appreciation for cooking. The last original episode of “The French Chef” aired several decades ago and since then, the creation of the Food Network has adapted with, or perhaps influenced, American tastes such that entertainment, not education, is what we want when we turn on the television.
In what may seem like an ironic twist, some of France’s finest dining establishments have begun a movement to ban photography in their restaurants. The global obsession with “food-porn” should, in theory, align with the French sense of pride and passion in the culinary arts, but it conflicts with the French notion of eating as an epicurean experience. Harkening back to the UNESCO recognition, the French meal is as much about how one eats, as it is what one eats. The chefs of these Michelin-starred restaurants assert that a diner must disconnect from technology to wholly enjoy their meal. This idea directly opposes the personal habits of most Americans, as well as trends within American restaurants to introduce more technology. Applebee’s, for example, has begun adding tablets to each table in their restaurants so that customers can order with a touchscreen and provide immediate feedback on the internet (Munarriz). Such thinking is sacrilegious to the French concept of dining and would undoubtedly be protested in France, but most Americans (always interested in a new technological experience and quicker service) have regarded it positively. Whereas restaurants in the U.S. recognize smartphones out on the tables as an opportunity for free publicity, several French chefs have spoken out against customers taking “food porn” pictures of their dishes. These chefs believe that their dishes are their intellectual property and that amateur photography undermines food as an art form (Agence France-Presse). This fundamental difference – food as merchandise versus art – is at the heart of the dichotomy between American and French restaurant culture.
Cultural sociology expert Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson elegantly stated, “what and how we eat is essential not only to the way we live but also how we think about life, about ourselves, and about the worlds that we inhabit” – it is for precisely this reason that culinary heritage is crucial to cultural identity (Ferguson). Hunger is what makes us human and how to satiate this hunger is unique to every culture. Though the effects of globalization and technological innovation threaten the idea of “authentic” ethnic cuisine, meal preparation and the act of eating are still entrenched in tradition for many countries. The United States has prospered without building a sense of culinary nationalism, but the people of America feel the consequences of our unconscious consumer culture. Our irreverent feelings toward the sit-down meal and our disregard for the sanctity of food products reflect badly on our health and our integrity. We do not have the gastronomic legacy of France, but we can learn from the French example and fight to raise our standards for food quality.

Works Cited
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