Sunday, July 31, 2011

Eating a Rainbow

I heard or read somewhere, that in order to get proper nutrition, we are supposed to eat as many different colors of food as we can.  Artificial food colorings don’t count.  Lately, I have been trying to eat the rainbow (not Skittles or playing a field of women- a rainbow of food).  Red cherries, strawberries and tomatoes.  Orange carrots, mangos and sweet potatoes.  Yellow corn, bananas and squash.  Green romaine, broccoli and melon.  Blueberries (which is kind of cheating, since everyone knows they are purple).  Purple onions, peppers and grapes.  White eggs, garlic and cheese.  Black rice, olives and beans.  Pink salmon, apples and grapefruit.  Brown wheat, mushrooms and raisins…
I have been especially paying attention to this equation since I’ve started reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  He doesn’t talk about eating the rainbow, but he does point out that since you are what you eat, we Americans are pretty much “corn walking”.  Not that I am against corn, by any means.  I love it on the cob, in my freezer, in my chili and salsa, flattened into tortillas and corn chips, baked into johnny cake, or the more southern style of savory corn bread.  However, it seems that corn is being parsed into so many seemingly different substances, that it is in, well, pretty much everything.  Even most of our meat, when looked at through a mass spectrometer, is corn molecules walking.  (He eloquently explains that corn holds an extra oxygen ion or something that distinguishes its molecules from others.)  This means that most of the nutrients that we eat, which as our hunter-gatherer ancestors knew, should be coming from a variety of plants and animals, instead are coming from one source:  corn.
To take it a step further, much of what goes in to our corn is….petroleum.  Black gold. Fossil fuel.   The large monoculture that has developed around growing corn for food for our cattle, chickens, cars and ourselves, maintains a very strong dependence on petroleum.  It takes gas to ship the seed and the products to and from various parts of the country.  It takes gas to run the combines, tractors and other vehicles necessary to maintain huge swaths of land dedicated to corn (and soybeans in some years).  And, the pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilizers dumped on our once fertile farmlands are all made out of…..petroleum.
What happens when the petroleum dries up?  If reducing our dependence on foreign oil is such a national security concern, why are small farmers losing more and more of their security while large agribusiness processors are feeling more and more secure in their mansions of xanthan gum, ascerbic acid, high fructose corn syrup and corn fed, disease ridden animals?  
Perhaps it is because we have come to value the illusion of variety in our foods instead of the real thing.  Perhaps it is because we have come to value the convenience of a quick meal on the run between paychecks over a dinner made together as a family in the kitchen.  Perhaps it is because we subsidize the corn industry with our tax dollars in order to create a glut in the market, just waiting for some savvy business person disguised as a bringer of the next new miracle food which is really the same old thing, some component of corn in disguise.  Perhaps it is because we would rather not recognize the origin of our food.  Perhaps it is all or none of these reasons.
Michael Pollan doesn’t ask these questions, but as I read, these questions arise almost of their own volition out of the most rebellious part of my mind.  For, what can be more rebellious than to question the very substance from which I am made?  Sugar and spice and everything...skeptical.
I have not finished reading the book yet, so my questions will continue as I read about Pollan’s journey to follow four meals from field to table.  (I have a feeling my questions will continue beyond that, since I question everything.)  I recommend this book for anyone interested in issues of ethical eating, nutrition, farming, business, shopping, cooking, eating, fast food, organic lettuce, American politics, hippie lifestyles, grass, corn, cows, chickens, or dirt.

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