As a person who loves food, food issues are an important part of my sustainable lifestyle. I include personal well-being as an aspect of sustainability. It’s getting so that you need advanced degrees in chemistry, botany, animal husbandry, and toxicology to eat in ways that sustain yourself and the rest of the planet.
One hot food topic is GMO’s. The food giants (including General Mills, Coca Cola, Kellogg’s, and many others) have spent millions of dollars to fund advertising hype that confuses people and causes state GMO labeling requirements to sometimes fail (nice try, California; go Vermont). The irony is that labeling is a tiny solution to a big problem, though labeling gives consumers a fighting chance to buy what they want or avoid what they don't want.
I have heard tell that Monsanto has figured out how to feed the world. I can’t help but wonder if what they have figured out is how to dominate the world food supply and to reduce the world’s population. GMO's play a useful role in both regards. GMO’s are not always the best crops for local weather and soil conditions but their farming limitations pale in comparison to their other drawbacks. At least one GMO crop(corn) has been found to reduce sperm motility in humans and shorten the lifespan of laboratory rats.
One thing that gives Monsanto a big edge is cross pollination. Pollen from patented crops drifts into fields of natural crops, pollinating them to some extent. Monsanto representatives trespass on these neighboring farms and steal samples of crops. Then they sue the farmer whose crop has been contaminated with GMO pollen for infringing Monsanto’s patent rights. The cases normally get settled out of court and the records are “sealed” (not available to the public), making it impossible to know how much money Monsanto has collected this way, nor the burden it places on farmers who do not use GMO’s.
One of the main reasons that farmers use GMO’s is so that they can use the herbicide Roundup, which is more toxic than GMO’s. Most GMO crops are “Roundup ready,” meaning that you can use Roundup on them and they will not die, though neighboring plants and weeds will die. You can be pretty sure that GMO foods will therefore contain a nice dose of Roundup. Some people object more to the Roundup than the GMO’s, partly because they become unwitting accomplices to the poisoning of the environment, consumers, and the farm workers who apply the Roundup.
Another issue that has been on my radar screen for more than 40 years is hydrogenated fats. My interest began when I happened to have some peanut butter (a major brand) with a cup of coffee. There was a terrible taste at the back of my tongue, a place that rarely tastes anything. I asked a knowledgeable friend if he knew what that taste was from, a taste that would not wash down with the coffee. “Oh, that’s probably the hardstocks.” Naturally, I asked what “hardstocks” are. When you hydrogenate fat (which is then blended with peanut butter to keep the oil from floating to the top), there are some nasty-tasting substances produced. They are stripped off with steam, but some remain in the hydrogenated fat. I stopped using major brands of peanut butter and also became curious about hydrogenated fats.
The hydrogenation process was originally used to improve the octane of gasoline. From there, hydrogenation moved to the detergent industry because soaps made with vegetable oils produced too many suds. Less product was required with detergents in their more natural form. Hydrogenation reduced suds. Around the same time, hydrogenation moved to the candle industry, permitting candles to be made from cottonseed oil and other oils that are liquids at room temperature. Hydrogenation makes oils solidify; the more hydrogenation, the more solid. When the introduction of electricity wiped out the candle market, Crisco was born from the surplus of cottonseed oil. Cottonseed oil is not something humans normally eat (keep in mind that growing cotton is a major pesticide use). There was nothing truly good about Crisco, so the advertising slogan was “contains no animal fat.” While this slogan is true, it is not necessarily an advantage. (There was nothing to indicate that animal fat was bad and even now, the data are unconvincing to many.) Some years after people started to avoid animal fat, the dentist Westin Price discovered that lack of animal fat (in other words, diets high in vegetable fat) resulted in vitamin D deficiency. This deficiency was especially bad for developing fetuses. Without sufficient vitamin D, jaws were narrow and tooth formation poor, resulting in crowded, crooked teeth and teeth that were highly susceptible to decay. Crisco had the advantage of never “going bad,” not that it was ever good, as well as the implied advantage of no animal fat, so it was quickly adopted. Hydrogenation moved to other fats and other foods and now, even most lard is hydrogenated to retard spoilage. Yum.
Before I discuss the next stage of the hydrogenation saga, I would like to give a short chemistry lesson. Hydrogenation puts more hydrogen into molecules. Fats and oils contain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Carbon has 4 sites available for bonding, hydrogen has 1, and oxygen has 2. With hydrogenation, double bonds between carbon atoms are not “saturated”, leaving only 2 bonds for other connections. Partial hydrogenation (not fully saturated) normally results in a 50:50 mix of “cis” and “trans” fats. This is the chemical equivalent to a left hand and a right hand – very similar but not identical. The body greatly prefers cis fats. Trans fats go through your digestive system, taking some of your fat-soluble vitamin D with them. About a decade ago, a process was patented for hydrogenating fats without producing trans fats. A study was sponsored by the company that owns the patent for this special hydrogenation process and the conclusion of the study was that trans fats are bad for you. (While this is certainly true, it does not address the contaminants that are by products of the hydrogenation process, nor the vitamin D issue.) The patent holder wanted lots of royalties for its new process, so in response to the bad press about trans fats, companies started fully hydrogenating fats so there would be zero cis, zero trans because there would be no double bonds. The problem is that such fats are as hard as wood and must be blended with liquid fat/oil to make them "edible." It may be necessary to use additional substances in order to get liquid fats and fully hydrogenated fats to blend. Hydrogenated fats are still used in many peanut butters, as well as in cookies, crackers, and candy.
There is another fat that I would like to bring to your attention. Canola oil has become the oil of choice in most restaurants, in food manufacturing, and in many homes. It is the cheapest oil. Canola is a descendent of the rapeseed plant. Rapeseed oil was used as the fuel in oil lamps. The reason it was not used in food is because it was too toxic. It contains a substance called erucic acid. Canola contains some erucic acid but not as much as rapeseed oil. The most noticeable effects of erucic acid are on skin, which becomes dry and cracked. Avoiding canola oil is even more difficult than avoiding hydrogenated oils.
There are many more topics to cover that link sustainability and food. Increasingly, it is better to eat at home. I will therefore be sharing some recipes in the months ahead. For those who care about food politics, a very useful website is www.citizens.org, which is currently featuring high fructose corn syrup.