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What Is Real Food?

A Little History
What follows is my personal account of how the food we eat (and what we are told to eat by the mainstream media) has changed over my lifetime.

I still remember as a kid in the 1960s seeing my Mom cook with bacon grease. I didn’t know there was anything “wrong” with that kind of food back then. It’s just what she was raised on in rural West Virginia. I remember visiting my Dad’s family farm and having fresh eggs from the chickens, milk from the cow, and apples right off the tree.

Then as a teenager I would visit my brother on his farm in Massachusetts. The home grown vegetables were good, but they just tasted like vegetables to me back then. One summer I helped take care of his ten pigs, then I got to taste a ham 24 hours after the pig was butchered.

I didn’t know it back then, but I was eating real food.

Then something happened in the 1970s. I discovered McDonalds and I thought it was great. As a teenager, I didn’t think much about the quality of the food. Or maybe I had no idea what real quality was. I was a teenager when the big food companies were introducing us to the miracle of high fructose corn syrup.

In the 80’s and 90’s we were told by the media that saturated animal fats were bad. Someone did a study and decided fat was bad. The media always runs with these stories, and the food companies had to react and market low-fat foods. When they took the fat out of the food, the flavor went with it. To compensate, they started adding sugar to improve the taste, but sugar was expensive so they started substituting high fructose corn syrup. Then came rapidly rising rates of obesity and diabetes. But hey, the drug companies love it because they can get us on drugs for the rest of our lives to fix the problems caused by our poor quality food.

In the 90’s, I bought into the low-fat thing. I was overweight (probably from all the sugar). I got motivated and decided to lose weight through diet and exercise. I exercised every day and ate a low-fat diet. Sure I lost weight, but was it a healthy approach? I thought so at the time, but I had no idea what I was doing to myself.

About 15 years later, I discovered things that shocked me thanks to abundant information available on the internet and not paying so much attention to the mainstream media. For one thing, a healthy human diet includes saturated animal fats and protein, fewer carbohydrates, and very little sugar. Today some people call it the Paleo diet, which suggests we should eat what early humans ate. I don’t follow it that strictly. In general, I eat meat, vegetables, fruits, and nuts, and avoid things like wheat and highly processed foods.

What Happened to the Real Food?
I stumbled onto this a few years ago. Remember, as a kid I had access to good, home grown foods. What happened to it? I think the changes were gradual and I didn’t notice. Then back in 2010, the magical awakening occurred accidentally. I grew my first cantaloupes. Not a big deal, right? I had cantaloupe all the time at work. That was a popular item for the “healthy” addition to a catered lunch at work. The eye opening moment was when I cut into the first home grown cantaloupe and took the first bite. Right away I knew something was different. This didn’t taste like the cantaloupe at work. It was awesome. I realized the stuff I had been eating had no flavor.

This got me to thinking. What exactly was this orange substance I had been eating? It sure wasn’t cantaloupe. Why was that? This sparked my interest and I started researching where our food comes from.

A hundred years ago, much more of our food was grown locally. Many people had farms or gardens. Or they shopped at local markets, which got its supplies from nearby farms. Then things morphed over the next few decades into this new model where our food is grown hundreds or thousands of miles away and shipped long distances to us. To avoid things going bad, they had to be picked earlier and allowed to ripen while in transit. Even worse, processed foods became more popular because they had a longer shelf life.

We’ll Just Fix It with Chemicals
To make it worse, the government got involved and subsidized farmers. A wide range of crops shrunk to fewer and fewer varieties, dominated by a few staple crops including corn, wheat, and soy. With less crop diversity, two problems arose – increased pest problems and soil nutrient depletion. To solve these problems, farmers used more pesticides and fertilizers. The end result is food that might look good on the store shelf, but is devoid of nutrients and laced with poisonous chemicals.

The problem of nutrient depletion gave rise to the billion dollar vitamin supplement industry. How did humans survive before vitamins? Don’t get me started on that.

With healthy saturated animal fats disappearing from our food, someone invested fake fat called trans fat. That was a great idea! I don’t know who came up with it or exactly why, but I know it’s not good and I don’t want it in my food.

Nor do I want pink slime or meat glue in my food. These were some bright ideas. Pink slime is something akin to soylent green scraped off the floor, but the government said it was ok to include it in ground beef and not tell us as long as there wasn’t too much of it. And meat glue was something used to glue together smaller cuts of meat to make them look better.

Yuck. I lost my appetite.

If you want to know more about our government-supported big agriculture food system, I recommend a couple of documentaries:
Food Inc. IMDB link
King Corn IMDB link

The Rise of Organic Food
As people became more aware of the problems with our food supply, organic food became more popular. I don’t know this for a fact but I would guess it coincided with the availability of information on the internet in the mid-1990s. Before that, I don’t remember hearing about organic food.

Organic food is theoretically grown in a manner that doesn’t use hazardous pesticides and herbicides. Organic is better for us, right? I’m not so sure about that. It’s definitely more expensive. If you’re wondering how good organic is, just do some internet searches. Try “Is organic really organic” for some eye-opening research. The problem is that the organic label is actually a USDA program, and they’re the guys who brought us the wonderful mono-cropping system that got us here.

Organic food is the commercial answer to the market demanding better quality. What most people don’t realize is that the quality is often not much better at all. It’s just less likely to be soaked in poison. The organic food you buy at the store is probably not nutrient dense. Compare an organic tomato or cantaloupe to a home grown one and you’ll taste the difference. Most people don’t realize that organic foods can still be grown in the same mono-cropping system and depleted soils, they just use organic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.

Yuck. I’m still not hungry.

So what is the answer?

Beyond Organic
Lately I’ve started hearing the term “beyond organic” but what does it mean? It means the market is demanding more. Once again, the internet is making it much easier for people to get educated about nutrition. I give organic credit for making consumers aware that there is an issue with our food.

I personally believe that organic is not the end state, but rather a stepping stone to what we really should be eating. Of course organic will become more and more common and will likely be around a long time, because most consumers will not do the research or the work necessary to truly eat healthy. They will continue to listen to the mainstream media tell them what to eat.

What Does Beyond Organic Mean?
Who knows what the next term will be. For now, beyond organic will do as it reminds us that there is something more needed. What it means to me is food grown locally in nutrient dense soil. Grass fed beef and pastured poultry, both of which can help build the soil. A lot of great work is being done with this already by people like Joel Salatin. See the links in the resource section below for more information.

The manual has already been written. It’s called “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual” by Bill Mollison and it was written almost 30 years ago. This book addresses all of the issues with our current food system. It teaches us to grow food locally. It also teaches us to focus on building the soil we grow our food in. Rather than constantly taking, we give. We build the soil with organic matter and compost, and the plants reward us with nutrient dense food that doesn’t require a vitamin supplement to go along with it.

In the future, the focus of this blog will increasingly be about Permaculture. We try to follow its guiding principles in everything we do on our property. I believe the solutions to our problems can be found in this book. Who knows, maybe someday soon we’ll be talking about Permaculture food.

Resources for this post:
Food Inc. video: IMDB link
King Corn video: IMDB link
AgriTrue – Know Where Your Food Comes From: AgriTrue
Jack Spirko’s Regenerative Agriculture Group on Facebook: Regenerative Agriculture Facebook Group
Polyface Farms – Joel Salatin: Polyface Farms

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