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« "Real Food" | Main | Blogging Notes »

September 08, 2006

Real Food -- Or Not?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Pulling together my previous posting reminded me of a couple of recent food-news stories:

It also reminded me of a comment Alec made a few weeks ago. He wrote, if I remember right, that he doesn't worry much about how the food he eats comes to be. It doesn't matter to him, in other words, if he's eating beef from a cow raised organically on grass or from one raised on corn and antibiotics in a feed lot. Fine with me, of course. But also a bit surprising. Given my own semi-crunchy predilections, I have a tendency to think that most people would, given a reasonable choice, generally prefer to eat more-natural rather than highly-tweaked foods.

But maybe I'm wrong. Would anyone like to volunteer their own preferences? Let's play a game. Say you have two apples in front of you. One is an eye-grabbing, glossy red-green; it's also from a genetically modified species, and was grown a thousand miles away on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. The other apple is visually more gnarly, but it has been raised locally and "organically." The big shiney industrial apple costs a quarter; the irregular natural one costs 30 cents. It's up to you to pick one of them to eat. Which do you go for? And why?



posted by Michael at September 8, 2006


I'd take the one looks better; because it looks better. I can't tell from your description whether the gnarly, natural one looks... untasty. I certainly wouldn't choose an industrial-designed, genetically engineered piece of food over a home-grown one just because it was industrial-designed and genetically engineered. But I'd also not choose a home-grown thing just because it was home-grown.

Of course the real thing to do is to get both, taste both, and know from then on which one TASTES better. Unless you're buying things and wanting to keep them for a week, because I'm pretty sure those industrial apples have a longer shelf-life.

Posted by: i, squub on September 8, 2006 1:43 PM

To say that I dislike "Crunchy Conservatism" is an understatement - I haven't seen such a morally pretentious yet basically shallow group of people since 1973 - but I believe that "food conservatives" have a valid point. It only makes sense that humans would do better health-wise eating foods of the sort that we evolved eating. Most "industrial foods" are probably OK, but we don't really KNOW, long term, nor do the guys in lab coats. Until we do, I'll take butter and lard over margarine and Crisco any day. But we should certainly have choice - I want to be able to decide between apples, and I'd oppose any attempt by anyone to ram either down my throat (so to speak....).

Posted by: tschafer on September 8, 2006 2:49 PM

Do I have any idea, a priori, of which one is likely to taste better?

My guess is that, other things being equal, the locally grown one has a better chance of being better to eat, most likely because it may well have been picked closer to being ripe. But differences in the variety, its handling, etc. could obscure that. Betting on the local one is a reasonable decision, but it's not a sure thing.

Which one will be tastier to eat, by the way, is the only factor I'd consider, the costs being basically equal. The organic pedigree means little or nothing to me.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on September 8, 2006 3:07 PM

Is this story gonna have seven dwarves in it?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on September 8, 2006 6:05 PM

Most natural food is poison -- it doesn't want to be eaten anymore than you do. The fact that corn, melons, and so on, are actually edible is a result of human engineering over thousands of years. So-called organic food is the same -- organic corn isn't the brittle junk that grows in the wild, and organic melons taste very sweet rather than bitter.

If further human engineering makes food even healthier and more palatable, you're a nutball to eat the old stuff. Similarly, drinking fluoridated water is better than natural water since the former has been through a purification process and has been fortified w/ an anti-microbial substance like that which comes in toothpaste. Naturally occurring salt tastes like junk, plus has no artificial iodine fortified into it, which boosts IQ.

Same goes for engineered people -- if you could create a human being that was ravishingly beautiful *and* had a pleasant disposition (and whatever other quirks you wanted), you'd certainly pick that over the girl (or guy) next door. Not that they would provide endless pleasure -- you'd get used to them like anything else, but you'd rather fall into a routine with something great than with something sub-par.

Posted by: Agnostic on September 8, 2006 6:20 PM

I'd go for the locally grown gnarly looking apple because I've had the shiny perfect big red apples before and they typically taste like artificial apple juice infused wet newsprint. Taste is always the deciding factor for me.

Posted by: TxBubba on September 8, 2006 9:07 PM

"Most natural food is poison -- it doesn't want to be eaten anymore than you do. The fact that corn, melons, and so on, are actually edible is a result of human engineering over thousands of years."

Ah, but that's the difference. The modern engineered foods have been around for thousands of years; problems with them would be well known by now. Modern GM has barely been around for a generation.

A lot of people's intuitive, emotional prejudices actually have sound evolutionary reasoning behind them.

Posted by: SFG on September 8, 2006 11:52 PM

I go for the gnarly one because my experience says it will taste better. The vegetables I buy at the weekly organic farmers' market generally seem to me to taste better than the flown-in ones at our local supermarkets.

A caveat to Agnostic's argument about historically engineered foods is that humans co-evolved along with them over those thousands of years. "Natural" foods - i.e. those engineered slowly, with primitive methods - have no moral primacy over more recently engineered foods, but they are more thoroughly tested and probably less likely to have nasty side effects.

One of the big impressions southern Europe made on me when I first went there was how tasty the vegatebles were. Was it because their agriculture was smaller-scale? I note that quality seems to be slipping there, now, too.

Posted by: robert on September 9, 2006 2:29 AM

I would eat them both.

Posted by: Fatboy on September 9, 2006 8:52 AM

The undeveloped acreage behind my parents' house was pasture at one time. Today it's a scrubby dry woods, mostly ash, some white pine & soft maple. But when I was growing up it was thick with wild apple trees, and I used to sample them enthusiastically, happily munching my way around the wormholes & scab.

I wish now I'd had the wherewithal to save seeds, since the variety was unbelievable and no doubt some of them were heirlooms that may well be lost forever now. My favorites were a tiny little apple; the fruit ripened to pale shiny green with the slightest pink blush, the flesh was juicy and crisp, the flavor sweet but tempered with a touch of pucker, like a bit of tannin though rather than sourness . . . the fruit was never bigger than a ping pong ball although I suppose if the trees were coddled the apples would have grown larger.

As for the two apples side-by-side: it's funny how one's eye/sensibility can be trained. To me, too-perfect produce makes me suspicious. It's like an obvious photoshop. I buy organic, even though it costs more, and even though that means my strawberries mold more quickly & my broccoli comes with aphids, because I've trained myself to measure value on something besides looks. Course that's a bit unnatural, though, isn't it :-)

Posted by: Kirsten on September 9, 2006 9:18 AM

Obviously the gnarly apple is the one to avoid, because it is infected with a fungus, or has worms in it, or both.

In comparison, the healthy-looking apple is far more likely to be healthy. So I'd pick the attractive apple.

Posted by: Schiller Thurkettle on September 9, 2006 10:28 AM

The good-looking apple every day and twice on Tuesday.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on September 9, 2006 12:05 PM

The gnarly one but it has nothing to do with it being organic or the other one being genetically modified. Most mass produced produce just doesn't taste very good since it is harvested unripe and is bred to have a flavor that is as inoffensive to as many people as possible.

Take the Red Delicious apple - the only genetic modification taken place there is the millenia old practice of hybridization. I have always found them to be gorgeous apples, but I can't stand them. They taste like wet cardboard.

Personally, I think the whole organic movement is a load of crap. I will never pay more for something simply because it is organic. I wish that the power of modern science was more directed to creating better food instead of simply more food.

Posted by: Ben on September 9, 2006 1:31 PM

The vegetables I buy at the weekly organic farmers' market generally seem to me to taste better than the flown-in ones at our local supermarkets.

You would be amazed. When I used to work at a fruit stand, we sold the same trucked-in fruit as the local supermarkets. The value-added was in my boss's eye for fruit, extra attention paid to what fruit to buy when (there are a couple of dozen varieties of peach that ripen at different times, for example) and extra effort put into letting the fruit ripen correctly. We had directors of the local farmers markets stopping by to ask us to send a truck -- and to claim that it was homegrown. The actual fraction of genuinely homegrown produce at those markets is not very high.

As far as food goes, only a fool would pay for any difference he can't taste. If you buy based on labels, you'll get whatever is cheapest to provide, with new labels.

Posted by: Zach on September 9, 2006 9:22 PM

Michael, I read your article back in July on Nina Planck's book and got it and read it. It's really wonderful -- I am slowly changing the way I eat, based not only on her book but also on a need to eat in a way that will lower glucose and insulin levels -- and that means less sugar, less processed stuff, more complex carbs, etc. etc. etc. The things she says in her book just make sense, and I'm heading down her road.

I've been going to a farmer's market pretty much every Saturday for well over a decade, and I can't recommend fresh, local produce enough. I will never again buy a tomato at Safeway -- I won't throw away my money on that horrible, tasteless stuff. In the winter, I eat only cherry tomatoes that still taste good, and in the summer, beautiful ones from the farmer's market that are so full of flavor -- I recently made tomato soup from some green zebra tomatoes that was out of this world. And they are definitely not gnarly -- this Saturday I bought some tomatoes that had such a bright orange/red color that you practically had to have sunglasses on to look directly at them. And the taste is fabulous. If you can get that at a Safeway or even at Whole Foods, I'd like to hear about it.

Thanks for the heads-up about Nina Planck. She's my idol.

Posted by: missgrundy on September 11, 2006 2:52 PM

I would buy both the first time, and whichever one tasted best the next time.

By the way, would you buy the organic but gnarly one if you could see a couple of worms crawling from it?

Here's a little news story out of Chicago, about a restaurants that serve designer beef. The story also notes that Chicago natives are, well, beefier, than other folks. Note also that although there is much in the article about how good the beef tastes, they don't even pretend to suggest that healthy and good-tasting are necessarily connected.

Given that this is Chicago, with it's well-earned reputation for corruption, I wonder how legitimate some of the designer beef really is? But if the diners swear by it, does it really matter?

Also here is a little piece from a Los Angeles alternative weekly that indicates that some organic foods stretch any reasonable definition of the term, and that some desirable organic products are (gasp) flown in from thousands of miles away ("Big Organic vs The Little Guys"). As is typical of much of this discussion, the argument degenerates into the infantile and false opposition of big and unnatural vs small and natural.

Posted by: Alec on September 11, 2006 4:01 PM

Actually, Alec, Nina Planck's argument is much more complex than you'd expect -- she makes the same argument you do about "organic," and doesn't trust the legitimacy of anything unless she knows the actual source -- the farmers themselves. She wouldn't believe that "designer beef" in a restaurant was any more legitimate than you would.

The difficulty comes for city dwellers for whom it will be tricky getting in touch with a source for what Planck calls "real" food. But there are links in her book and also online. And she urges you to actually talk to the farmers at the market to ask the right questions about how their food is raised -- for example, her parents' farm is *not* certified organic for a bunch of reasons, but is nevertheless very wholesome and healthy.

Oh yeah. A couple of weeks ago we had to knock the worms off the top of an ear of corn. We cut off that part and cooked the rest. Delicious.

Posted by: missgrundy on September 11, 2006 5:12 PM

God, how I love these false dichotomies! It wouldn't do to give us a choice between a slightly bruised GMO apple like product and an organic fruit with a few bits of scab, would it? Here's your thirty cents!

thumbs up: TxBubba, robert & Kirsten

Zach: because you worked at a poorly run & regulated farmer's market doesn't mean all farmer's markets are poorly run & unregulated. Ever work in the produce department of a supermarket?

Posted by: Chris White on September 11, 2006 8:08 PM

I'm surprised by the hostility of some of the posters to the ideas outlined in Michael's post. Yes, hybridization of fruits and veg has been going on for a long time, but now most supermarkets deal in varieties that have been bred to ship well, not taste good.

I'm with Michael, and with Miss Grundy--having to flick a worm off an piece of produce is not really a big deal--these things grow in the soil, after all. I would rather deal with that situation than ingest pesticide residues, and I'd rather support local/regional agriculture by buying fresher food in season than support industrial feedlots etc by buying bland beef and chicken, gorgeous but mealy apples, and tasteless, juiceless tomatoes.

Posted by: Linda on September 12, 2006 7:43 AM

While no food purist by any stretch of the imagination, for all kinds of reasons ... taste, health, supporting local economy, etc. ... our hierarchy of food choice goes: home grown organic, local organic, local conventional, organic, conventional. This would seem to transcend typical political divisions. That it does not seems curious.

I guess the combination of "support global big business capitalism at all costs" and "if liberals like it, it must stink" knee jerk conservative reactions are too strong for many, even when it comes to their dietary choices.

And let me say, after you've eaten a fresh, vine ripened, organic heirloom tomato ... even though they sometimes look kinda odd ... you'll find those hard red things with the "perfect tomato" look disappointing at best.

Posted by: Chris White on September 12, 2006 10:43 AM

Mmmmmmm -- heirloom tomatoes!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 12, 2006 5:00 PM

Linda – I’m not hostile to the ideas outlined in Michael’s post; rather, I am bemused by the degree to which the subject of food often involves a kind of evangelical fervor on the part of advocates for some type of food. I agree that all things being equal, organic (however you define it) products may generally taste better than industrial food. But anything else is debatable, and some of the assertions that locally farmed or organic products are always inherently “better,” “more natural,” more nutritious or more moral in some way, cannot be sustained factually, or does not always matter even if it were true.

Quick example: most foods lose some nutritional value when cooked (including meat), but few people would seriously assert that we “should” always endeavor to eat meat and vegetables raw. How many organic food advocates go without any canned or packaged foods?

Also, railing against industrial food production, international markets, and the use of pesticides strongly implies that posters think it okay if there were food shortages, or lesser availability of out-of-season foods. Are you willing to go back to smoking meats, pickling and salting foods, etc., which were some of the methods previous generations used to deal with a more variable food supply? Why don’t more organic food activists take the logical next step, and move to farms so that they can grow their own food and raise their own animals, rather than depending on someone else to do it for them?

Otherwise, just accept that organic foods is a boutique market, and be thankful that you can afford the generally higher prices and variable availability of these foods, and stop insisting that this is some magical model for feeding millions or billions of people without the need for compromise or trade-offs.

Posted by: Alec on September 13, 2006 12:08 AM

Alec -- I think you might be surprised at the number of crunchy-esque people who you're at least semi on the same team as, including me (and probably Nina Planck, which is why I included her little bit about liking electricity fine, except when it means a loss of food flavor). I'm not remotely evangelical about much of anything -- on the other hand, I can work up a bit of a head of steam where the food thing is concerned on three counts:

* One is that boutique markets serve an important social purpose. Luxury cars try out innovations that sometimes make their way into the general car population, and Apple has certainly blazed trails that Microsoft then followed -- I'd hate to think how bad our personal computers would be generally if Macs hadn't shown the way! Boutique markets are like the R&D department of a corporation, it seems to me. Given this, it's useful not to persecute them, and it's useful to cut them a little slack.

* Another is the question of satisfaction. I suspect that one reason many Americans experience bizarre food fixations and obsessions is that they're trapped within a culture of bad eating. They get addicted to the buzz and crackle of jazzed-up, synthetic food, and it leaves them, junkie-like, craving more. Then they resolve to lose weight, exercise, break their resolutions, hate themselves, find solace in bad food again, etc etc. Good food can help break this cycle, as well as enhance life generally. Experiences of real satisfaction can calm a spirit down. It's too bad more people don't know this. It's cheap, it's healthy. Would that it were more easily available to more people.

* Third is that the "normal" way of doing food-production in this country, while it appears cheap, is in fact enormously subsidized, and quite expensive, and imposes a lot of unrecognized costs, social, ecological, and financial.

Many of our food laws and regulations are very helpful, of course. But many of them exist to serve the convenience of large food producers more than us eaters. (According to "Fast Food Nation," McDonald's gets federal subsidies, for instance.) I wrote in an earlier posting about a farm I once visited where the farmer proudly showed off his product: a carrot that resulted entirely from sandy soil, irrigated water (from federally-built dams), and petroleum based fertilizer and pesticides. That's a lot of social, political, and financial help he's getting from the rest of us, all for the sake of growing bad, "cheap" carrots.

I could be dreaming, but I suspect that if some of those laws and subsidies were reformed or gotten rid of, the boutique market might well expand some, and more people might eat better and enjoy life a bit more.

I dislike the food police too, but I really don't think Nina Plack is a member of that force. She reminds me more of a swami I once ran into. It's possible to be hyper-strict in an Ayervedic-vegan way about eating, and some swamis preach that. But this guy, while aware of the arguments and the prescriptions, basically said, "Y'know, any improvement is a good thing. Why not eat more greens?"

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 13, 2006 10:44 AM

Alec What's wrong with the arguments that, by buying locally raised organic foods, one is [a] supporting the local economy [b] minimizing the amount of time, distance and thus energy required to get the food from field to table [c] helping to keep local landscapes open AND productive? Aren't these values a "conservative" can embrace? Who is claiming it is the only way to feed billions? Given that there is ample evidence of smaller, traditional (i.e. organic) farmers in developing nations being forced by economics to sell out their small plots and become essentially factory workers for large scale conventional monoculture agribusiness, where is the long term gain, either in feeding the world or assisting those developing nations or on your own dinner plate?

For the record, I do raise a certain amount of my own food and have no problem eating more canned, frozen or easily stored "winter" crops in the winter. When we eat corn in season, we always cook twice as much as needed, cut it off the cob and freeze it for winter. As we do with strawberries and blueberries, etc. I don't need (or particularly want) fresh strawberries or asparagus 12 months of the year.

Posted by: Chris White on September 13, 2006 10:45 AM

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