Friday, October 1, 2010

How did our food get so bad?

 An interesting follow on to my previous post on food and eating in our so-called modern world.

In my previous post, I followed Michael Pollan's perspective on our disconnection from our food, and it's negative effect on our lives and societies. The disconnect has been a conscious choice in some places, and also demonstrates how focusing on different values, and changing the structure of living, affects the way we feed ourselves and keep ourselves alive. In changing from a tribal lifestyle of hunting, gathering, and growing food for self-sustenance, and moving to a society where we live in cities, we have become more dependent on others for our food. But we believe this is a good thing because we feel more economically empowered, we have a different focus for our lives - now we focus our time on work and achievement and reward, rather than daily manual labour outdoors.

Is this how you normally spend your working week?

Or is it more like this?

We live in an information age, where the brain is the most important part of the human, and most of our lifestyles have changed to a sedentary existence, behind computers and TVs and gaming consoles. Most of the people in the world living in cities, earning a reasonable income, and being able to buy a reasonable amount of desired possesions, see their lives as successful. Women feel emancipated, out of the fields and into the corporate world.

Do you think this woman is less happy?

Does technology really give women freedom?

We are living in a time where food has never been more readily available, and its variety is diverse. We eat food from all over the world, and consider this fantastic (mainly because most of us have no idea of the true costs that go into bringing the food from remote places to our local grocery store). We structure our food to our wants, rather than living seasonally and relying on local availability. But our food is becoming less nutritious and more artificial.

Vegetables in cans

Supper for millions of people

Yesterday evening I went shopping in our local Woolworths for a few things for dinner, and I felt like a nice dessert. I wandered through the bakery section and looked at their cakes and pies - do you know that every single one listed about 17 ingredients, most of which were completely artificial! This is the list from a Carrot Cake: sugar, wheat flour, carrots (10%), water, vegetable oil, walnuts, crushed pineapple, egg powder, raising agents (500, 541, 341), salt, thickener (412), spices, caramel (150c), palm oil, soy, wheat starch, cream cheese, dextrose, emulsifiers (471, 435), acidity regulator (330), preservatives (202), salt, artificial flavours, colours (102, 110). Everything in bold is completely artificial. And all the other cakes and desserts had equally scary long lists of artificiality. Needless to say I did not have dessert last night, and I have decided to start baking my own cakes and desserts because at least then the scariest thing in them will be the sugar and vanilla extract.

Walking around Woolworths, there are shelf upon shelf of fake foods, garish in highly-coloured printed packaging, all overlaid with plastic. The cereal aisle has so-called health bars for kids - popped rice in bars covered in yoghurt (more artificial ingredients than anything else listed!), and what about the ones covered in chocolate and little MandMs?

"Mom, can I have chocolate for breakfast?"
"No, sweetie, why don't you have some cereal instead..."

Mmm... healthy breakfast! NOT!

Ready-meals full of preservatives, fruit and vegetables imported from all over the world, covered in pesticides and preservatives, meats and chicken from factory farms, entire aisles devoted to sugary cereals, sweets and chocolates, ice-cream, frozen pizzas and burgers. And this is where most people shop for their normal every-day groceries, myself included. We are stuck on a destruction merry-go-round - buying foods, toiletries and cleaners full of toxic chemicals which go into our bodies, covered in plastic packaging which we throw into landfills and which end up in the ocean, and completely unaware of the true cost of any of the goods we happily consume everyday.

I have most of these in my cupboards - how about you?

Do you think our ancestors would look at this and identify anything here as food?

And even those of us who are aware, still struggle to move away from processed foods - today for lunch, simply because it was quick and convenient, I ate 2 slices of wholewheat toast with margarine (oil, salt, emulsifiers, preservatives, food acid, colours), fish spread (processed fish, sugar, salt, flavours, acidity regulator, colour), vegemite (yeast extract, colour, malt extract, flavours) and cheese spread (milk, cream, sugar, salt, food acid, preservatives). Oh, wait, I had some fresh corn from last night's supper on top of the cheese spread - that's healthy, right?

Let's take a look at how we ended up in this modern world of processed foods, easily available, with fridges and pantries full of packaged goods.

Rachel Laudan is an author and researcher and her speciality is the history, geography, and politics of food. She is originally from the UK, she has been living in Mexico for the past twenty-odd years. Rachel has an interesting perspective on the development of processed food and the link to increased wealth and economic opportunity for the middle-class people living in a city. The full article is available on her blog.

Rachel Laudan giving a talk on the history of Mexican food

Rachel shows how moving into cities changes our views, and also our way of eating. She says: "All cities require fuel: oil, gas, electricity, and so on. Without food energy, a city is nothing. A city is nothing without the people who work and play and enjoy or suffer through the city, and they require food." According to Rachel's research, all cities are fed on grains, and to maintain a city, you need to get grains into it to keep the city's people fed.  For most of history, until about 150 years ago, most people in most cities, except for the very wealthy, lived almost exclusively on grains. They got about ninety percent of their calories from grains, and for every single person in a city you need 1kg of grains a day, turned into something that people could eat. And it's important to note that when Rachel says that cities live off grain, she actually means they live off the processed end product of the grain. "Cities don’t live off grain. Grain is not edible. Maize is not edible, wheat is not edible—if you eat a lot of wheat or a lot of maize, it will go straight through the system. Grains—maize, wheat, or rice, it doesn’t matter which—are only edible once they have been processed and cooked into boiled rice, bread, tortillas—whatever the end product is. That’s what you eat."

So you can do some calculations. If you’ve got a city of a million, like ancient Rome, you’ve got to get two million pounds of grain into the city every day.

But processing these grains into something edible and nutritious is incredibly labour-intensive and time consuming. Rachel explains how to turn maize into a tortilla. "First of all you have to cook the maize with something alkaline. Today you can use cement, but in the past they used the salt from the dry lake bed around Mexico City. You have to take the grains off the maize, which is very time-consuming, and then you heat it, you cook it, and you rub the husks off. Then, when you have got your wet-cooked maize, you have to grind it. For thousands of years, Mexican women ground maize like this. I’ve spent some time grinding. You have a metate, and you start with your handful of maize and you put it here and you grind it down to end of the grindstone, and it’s not fine yet. You use your fingers to move it back up again, and you grind it all the way back down again. Then you move it back up again—and to get it fine enough to make tortillas you have to do this five times for each handful of maize. Depending on how good you are, it takes somewhere between fifty minutes and an hour to do enough maize for tortillas for one person. That means for a family of five someone is going to be spending four or five hours a day doing nothing but grind.  It’s very exhausting, grinding."

That means that in order to eat food in the city, in sickness and in health, from Monday to Saturday, the women of the house ground for four or five hours a day, and on Sunday the family ate stale tortillas. Rachel adds: "It is a very, very time-consuming thing. It’s terrible for the individual: arthritis, bad knees, no time to spend with the children, and no opportunity to go to school. It’s also, obviously, not a great thing for the society if you’ve got one fifth of your adults doing nothing but grinding."

Again, an interesting perspective. There is a belief that humans should be doing something more (something better?) than preparing, producing, gathering food. Somewhere in our modern and technologically advanced world, we have changed our views and decided that there are far more important occupations for humans than being involved with food.

Which job do you think is better - working in the fields, or in an office like the ladies below?

Food production jobs are not coveted, and indeed, most people involved in food processing do not earn great reward or esteem for their work. Chefs in fancy restaurants may be lauded, and food programmes on TV elevate their status, but this is more entertainment than actually feeding people.

Is this a job that you aspire to?

Or would you rather be rich and famous like Jamie?

Is Nigella actually involved in food production? Or is she just selling herself and her fab lifestyle?

In pagan times, when societies were matriarchal and the tribal leaders were women, the role of women in the home was revered - the women held status because they could cook, and being in the kitchen was a high-status role exclusively for women. Men were not allowed to learn these skills.

Can you imagine this as a leadership role for women?

Do you think of this woman as a leader in her field?

Men, you better not be nodding here!
As societies became more village-like and less tribal, food became a commodity which was exchanged for other valuable possessions. So we have moved from the belief that making food is a valuable occupation, to the belief that other occupations are far more important. And certainly we could not have made advances in medicine and technology if most adults were still involved in food labour. But we seem to revere occupations that focus on the artificial, more and more. Actors and musicians are the highest status positions in the world, and they do nothing more than entertain. Corporate business occupations are mainly administrative, and people again obtain artificial reward - money is valued, and the main focus is on that money - reducing costs, increasing profits, streamlining processes to do things quicker and more efficiently, to make more money. People who do work in food-oriented jobs in cities, do so again for monetary reward, and do not place very high value on their occupations or see their roles as vital in keeping people alive. "A farmer" is normally pretty low on the list when you ask kids at school what they want to be when they grow up.

When I grow up, I want to be a....

When I grow up I want to be just like Dad!

Farm animals are only fun to play with!

The reality of how most of us end up in our jobs....

There is a fascinating article from Time Magazine Online, called What The World Eats, which shows families from different places in the world, and what they eat in a one-week period, as well as their weekly expenditure on food. The differences are very telling:

Japan - Food expenditure for one week: 37,699 Yen or $317.25
Favorite foods: sashimi, fruit, cake, potato chips

Chad - Food expenditure for one week: 685 CFA Francs or $1.23
Favorite foods: soup with fresh sheep meat

United States - Food expenditure for one week: $341.98
Favorite foods: spaghetti, potatoes, sesame chicken

Mexico - Food expenditure for one week: 1,862.78 Mexican Pesos or $189.09
Favorite foods: pizza, crab, pasta, chicken

Poland - Food expenditure for one week: 582.48 Zlotys or $151.27
Family recipe: Pig's knuckles with carrots, celery and parsnips

Egypt - Food expenditure for one week: 387.85 Egyptian Pounds or $68.53
Family recipe: Okra and mutton

Ecuador - Food expenditure for one week: $31.55
Family recipe: Potato soup with cabbage

Mongolia - Food expenditure for one week: 41,985.85 togrogs or $40.02
Family recipe: Mutton dumplings

Britain - Food expenditure for one week: 155.54 British Pounds or $253.15
Favorite foods: avocado, mayonnaise sandwich, prawn cocktail, chocolate fudge cake with cream

Bhutan - Food expenditure for one week: 224.93 ngultrum or $5.03
Family recipe: Mushroom, cheese and pork

Germany - Food expenditure for one week: 375.39 Euros or $500.07
Favorite foods: fried potatoes with onions, bacon and herring, fried noodles with eggs and cheese, pizza, vanilla pudding

It is important to have a balanced perspective though. In her article A Plea for Culinary Modernism, Rachel paints another picture of our ancestors, and why we have moved to processed easily-accessible foods.

Back to Rachel, and grinding the grains: "That kind of labour-intensive grinding was what they did in Ur, and in ancient cities of the Middle East and Egypt. By the time you get to Rome, roughly—by about the birth of Christ—in the Middle East and in Europe, they get a rotary grindstone, and instead of requiring one person per every five to spend all day grinding this two pounds of grain that everybody in the city needs, they get it down to one in thirty. Then they get watermills and it goes down to one in three hundred—and nowadays we don’t even think about it! There are big steel rollers up there in Minneapolis and they’re grinding grain for hundreds of thousands of people, using just a handful of workers."

A mano and metate traditionally used for grinding grain by hand

These are industrial machines used for grinding grain - pretty space age!

In Mexico City, they invented a tortilla machine to reduce time and labour. And they found a way to take the wet, alkali-treated maize, grind it, dehydrate it, and put it into packets. Rachel adds: "Another thing that happened, during this crucial fifty-year period between 1945-ish and the end of the twentieth century, was that bread changed in Mexico. Traditional bread in Mexico was bread by the small piece, made in the traditional oven: the bolillo, the semita, and the numerous small breads you still see in Mexican bakeries today.

Bolillo and semita

Beginning in 1945, an immigrant from Catalonia, Lorenzo Servitje, bought two second-hand loaf-making machines from the United States—the kind that make sliced white bread. The Servitje family founded the Bimbo company, which is now, as you know, omnipresent in Mexico. Bimbo bread lasts a long time and became widely available, and Bimbo now the largest bakery in the world. It is the fifth biggest food company in the world."

Bimbo bread in Mexico

Tortilla machine in Walmart

Supermarket tortillas

Now Rachel explains WHY it is that the Mexicans, and indeed people in all cities in the world, are so accepting of eating mass-produced food with lower nutritional value and less taste. "Mexican women that I have talked to are very explicit about this trade-off. They know it doesn’t taste as good; they don’t care. Because if they want to have time, if they want to work, if they want to send their kids to school, then taste is less important than having that bit of extra money, and moving into the middle class. They have very self-consciously made this decision. In the last ten years, the number of women working in Mexico has gone up from about thirty-three percent to nearly fifty percent. One reason for that—it’s not the only reason, but it is a very important reason—is that we’ve had a revolution in the processing of maize for tortillas."

Women in Mexico have deliberately chosen not to live this way anymore

Instead this way of life is now valued.

So women's values have changed strongly. Work and education is more valued. Producing food for your family is less valued. There is an interesting article by David McRaney from the website You Are Not So Smart, about Women's Happiness. The misconception, as he puts it, is that "Progress has led to an overall improvement in the lives of women which has led to happier, more satisfying existence." McRaney says that the truth is that the reported happiness of women has decreased since 1975 as the happiness of men remains unchanged. The changes in our modern, industrialised world have led to great progress in education, technology, the job market and reproduction, giving women more opportunity to do what they want to do with their lives than ever before. But women are not happier.

Doing the morning breakfast run...

Trying to "have it all"

According to a study by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers: "The lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years by many objective measures, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men. This decline in relative wellbeing is found across various datasets, measures of subjective wellbeing, demographic groups, and industrialized countries. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s reported higher subjective well-being than did men. These declines have continued and a new gender gap is emerging—one with higher subjective well-being for men."

Stressed mom, happy dad?

There is a lot of speculation around why this should be. Some of it may have to do with expectations - women’s expectations have changed with the greater scope of possibilities. When you ask yourself how satisfied you are with life, the answer depends on how much total satisfaction you believe is possible. Another possibility is that the world in which women gained access to over the last 35 years is a world built by men, and achievements in that world are male. To feel accomplished, women must subscribe to the things a male-driven world has established for hundreds of years as being measures of success. Women may not get the same satisfaction from those things as men do.

In his article, McRaney quotes Barry Schwartz: "The more freedom and choice you have, the less happy you become. People become paralyzed by it, never satisfied with any one road taken in life because your thoughts linger on what may have been down the others."

So now we have women, moving out of a food-oriented role, which was seen as demeaning because of the dominance of men in our society, who viewed the kitchen role as lesser. Women become indoctrinated into believing that happiness will come from achieving in the roles that men have structured into the world. But at the same time women are told that they can "do it all" - have a successful career, raise a family, cook like a goddess, and run a fabulous house.

This looks pretty normal right - could be you or me on a good day?

Except that I am not worshipped by a million fans

And I definitely don't look like this every day!

The media sends millions of messages every day to women about how we "should" be able to look, how we "should" aspire to be rich and sexy and famous, how we can have kids and a career and still look fabulous at 50...

Nicole Kidman - looking like a normal mom-next-door

Nicole Kidman - bombshell!

Jen Aniston, career woman (ok, looking like 20 when she's 40, but still...)

This is how Jen gets portrayed on the cover of a men's mag.
Geez, I feel inadequate...

Heidi Klum and Seal with their kids - average family, right?

Heidi Klum, covergirl.

Cameron Diaz, out on a shopping trip

Cameron Diaz, photoshopped within an inch of her life.

When I did a search for Sexy Women Celebs Over 50, this is what came up.
These women all look like they're in their late 20's!

When you do the same search for Sexy Men Celebs Over 50,
this is what you get! Wrinkly, bald, grey hair!
So many inconsistencies in expectations between women and men!

Do you remember the movie Bridges of Madison County?
With that hot actor, Clint Eastwood?

This is what he actually looked like in the movie!

But Meryl Streep, who was born on 22 June, 1949,
looks like she's about 30!

This is the alleged bill for Demi looking so young in Charlie's Angels

Women are more stressed and over-extended these days because we have so many expectations put on us by the society we live in. Now I am not saying that we should go back to the 1950's and lock women back into the home and the kitchen. I am saying the the homemaker's role, of feeding the family and looking after the home, whether done by men or women, needs to be more valued.

We need to change our views that how we look, money, fame and possessions are what makes us happy. We need to realise that the basics of life are very, very important.

Animals in the wild do not own possessions. They spend their lives just living - they hunt for food, they enjoy the sunshine, they rest when they need to. They do not suffer from stress or depression or the myriad of mental illnesses affecting humans. Animals are, I believe, intrinsically happy. Humans are born happy - babies smile and laugh, and little children find happiness comes easily to them. As we grow older, we learn that our lives are extremely complex and difficult. Our world moves at a viciously fast pace. We are expected to achieve and excel. We are told which roles are valuable, and which roles are not. We lose our basic happiness that we are born with, and spend the rest of our lives trying to find it again.

Animals and plants are strongly connected to each other through the food chain - this is the structure that keeps our natural world going. But somewhere along the line, humans have taken themselves completely out of this food chain and created a separate, artificial food network separate from nature. Most people have no idea what food in its natural state looks like - oh, sure, we all know what cows and pigs and chickens look like, and vegetables and fruit are pretty much in their natural shapes. But we don't see the reality of producing this food. We don't see the cows, ducks, chickens, pigs, sheep imprisoned in factory farms, some of them in hideous conditions and suffering badly. We don't see the battery chickens laying egg after egg. We don't know about the horrible things that can happen in slaughter-houses where animals can end up being skinned and having their legs sliced off while still alive. And even if we do know about it, we all conveniently push this information solidly to the very recesses of our minds and try hard not to think about it while we buy our lovely steaks and chops and chicken wings, all nicely packaged and sterile. Even when it comes to fruit and veg - we don't associate the perfectly shaped grapes and carrots and potatoes and apples with muddy soil and pesticides and millions of litres of water. And heaven forbid we find a funny-shaped carrot in the supermarket, or a slightly bruised banana - we expect our fruits and vegetables to be perfection themselves before we will deign to put them on our plates. Even if we eat organic beef and chicken, and free-range eggs, most of the time we barely even give a thought to the actual animal itself when we prepare and eat our foods.

Do you think of this when you are about to eat that yummy steak?

Even having this pic right next to the cow above, I still find it hard to think "This is a cow"

I am certainly not advocating that we go back to living in the wild. Rachel describes in her article A Plea for Culinary Modernism how incredibly tough it was to eat and live off fresh and natural food. She says: "For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad. Fresh meat was rank and tough, fresh milk warm and unmistakeably a bodily excretion: fresh fruits were inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter. Natural was unreliable. Fresh fish began to stink, fresh milk soured, eggs went rotten. Everywhere seasons of plenty were followed by seasons of hunger when days were short, the weather turned cold, or the rain did not fall."

She continues: "No amount of nostalgia for the pastoral foods of the distant past can wish away the fact that our ancestors lived mean, short lives, constantly afflicted with diseases, many of which can be directly attributed to what they did and did not eat."

Rachel writes: "To make food tasty, safe, digestible and healthy, our forebears bred, ground, soaked, leached, curdled, fermented, and cooked naturally occurring plants and animals until they were literally beaten into submission. To lower toxin levels, they cooked plants, treated them with clay, and leached them with water, acid fruits and vinegars, and alkaline lye. They intensively bred maize to the point that it could not reproduce without human help."  It's interesting to see how we have gotten to the point of viciously processed food - from our ancestor's times to now, people have chosen to change raw foods to make them more tasty and enjoyable.

So we see that way, way back in human history, people have been processing and changing raw, natural foods. And people have been unconcerned with consuming chemicals and toxins for centuries - Rachel's article says that for five hundred years, Europe's poor staggered around in a drugged haze and suffered horrible hallucinations, because bread was made from mouldy, verminated flour, which was adulterated with mash, leaves and bark to make it go further, and hemp and poppy seeds were added for flavour and to mask the taste. Well up into the 1860's, bread was stretched with chalk, pepper contained the sweepings of warehouse floors, and sausage was stuffed with horrors. Rachel says: "Even the most reputable cookbooks recommended using concentrated sulphuric acid to intensify the colour of jams."



One of the biggest problems in history, and which still continues today despite all of our technology and industrialisation, is the massive chasm between the rich and the poor, and thereby their access or lack thereof, to nutritious and nourishing foods. It seems understandable that people of the past would go hungry - food was not produced on the mass scale as it is today, the feudal systems forced the poor peasants into working on lands that were not their own, and things like sugar and rice were costly and exotic.

Today we have access to almost any food we want, right from our corner supermarket or food court. But there is a catch,  of course. You have to have money to be able to buy it. Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton, from the book A Nation of Farmers, write: "Most hunger in the world has absolutely nothing to do with food shortages. Most people who go to bed hungry, both in rich and in poor countries, do so in places where markets are filled with food that they cannot have." The world produces more food calories than are needed to sustain its entire population, but millions of people cannot afford the healthy and nutritious foods which we are told are the best for us.

Astyk and Newton continue: "Inequity and politics, not food shortages, were at the root of almost all famines in the 20th century. Brazil, for example, exported $20 billion worth of food in 2002, while millions of its people went hungry. During Ethiopian famines in the 1980s, the country also exported food. Many of even the poorest nations can feed themselves—or could in a society with fairer allocation of resources." Over recent decades, industrial agriculture and widespread industrialization have moved large chunks of the human population into cities, promising more wealth. But rising food and energy prices (rising because of this move and this urban population’s new demands for energy and meat) have left people unable to feed their families.

You would imagine that that the best food is from the country, handmade by artisans. I have a vision of myself living on a small farm, milking my two cows every morning, happily making cheese and butter for myself, baking my own breads, collecting my eggs from my happy chickens, and growing piles of lovely vegetables and salads. But this is not how it used to be in the past - it seems that our vision of where we want to go to, away from processed foods and city life, to a slower, country existence of somewhat self-sustenance, is truly that - a vision. It is not a way of moving back to a rural, peaceful way of life that we imagine existed where everyone was happy and healthy. We actually need to create a totally new food and life vision for ourselves, moving forward into food tranquility and health.

This is how I used to imagine life was for peasants and farmers in the past centuries

This is the reality of farming in the 1800's!!

Rachel says: "Few who worked the land were independent peasants baking their own bread, brewing their own wine or beer, and salting down their own pig. Most were burdened with heavy taxes and rents paid in food; or worse, they were indentured, serfs, or slaves. Barely part of the cash economy, they subsisted on what was left over."

Meanwhile the rich suffered many of the diseases of excess. "In Georgian England, George Cheyne, the leading doctor, had to be wedged in and out of his carriage by his servants when he soared to 400 pounds (180kg). In the Islamic countries, India, and also Europe, the well-to-do took sugar as a medicine; in India they used butter; and in much of the world people avoided fresh fruit and vegetables, all on medical advice."

George Cheyne

Henry VIII

Clearly we now have the medical knowledge to see that this kind of diet leads to illness. But somehow, fruits and vegetables have become the foods of the rich, while the poor people subsist on breads and lard and cheap take-aways like McDonalds and KFC. Multinational food companies make their processed foods available in single-serving packets to be more affordable on a weekly budget (Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel, authors of Hungry Planet). This is leading to obesity which has become such a problem that it is the focus of one of Michelle Obama's campaigns.

“The expansion of agricultural production for export, controlled by wealthy elites who own the best lands, continually displaces the poor to ever more marginal areas for farming,” agroecologist Peter Rosset writes in Food Is Different. “They are forced . . . to try to eke out a living on desert margins and in rainforests. As they fall deeper into poverty . . . they are often accused of contributing to environmental degradation.”

In this system, poor people who depend on the land, and who best understand the urgency of preserving it, are forced by necessity to degrade and destroy it—and they, rather than we, are held responsible. But a large part of the responsibility rests on the way we eat. This is an important point, because it acknowledges that there are things that we in wealthy nations can do to enable poorer people to eat better—or even to eat at all.

Slash and burn agriculture is devastating to the environment

Astyk and Newton  say: "One way to do this is simply to grow our own food, to rely not on foods grown thousands of miles away but on foods grown at local farms and gardens.

We also can concentrate on creating food sovereignty in poor nations. We can cut back on global food trade, importing primarily high-value, fair-traded dry goods that take little energy to transport, and place limits on food speculation, which drives up prices so that multinational corporations can get richer at the expense of the poor."

The Global Grain Trade

Food is not only something that you put into your body to fuel yourself. Today we have myriads of TV shows about fancy, exotic foods; travel programmes which show you all the strange and delightful foods of different countries; even a show called Man vs. Food where Adam Richman (such an ironic name! Rich man = gluttony, how appropriate!) travels around America finding all the biggest meals and taking them on as eating challenges - Adam tries conquer a massive grilled cheese sandwich in Cleveland, OH, a 7-lb. (3kg) seafood feast in Long Island, NY, and race to finish 50 wings in 30 minutes in Boulder, CO.

Adam Richman in his show Man vs. Food

This is not a new thing. The rich throughout history have indulged in feasts - ostentatious shows of more food than the powerful could possibly consume, driving home the power of the mighty few. Feasts were public occasions for the display of power, and the poor were invited to watch, groveling as the rich gorged themselves.

The disparity between rich and poor was abundantly clear in the access they had to food. The poor ate maize, sweet potatoes, porridges, polentas, coarse breads of rye or barley bulked out with chaff and clay - meat was only for rare occasions. The rich indulged in white bread, meats, rich fatty sauces, sweet desserts, exotic pineapples, wine, tea, coffee, and chocolate drunk from fine china.

Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette in the movie

The Chocolate Drinkers from the Palace at Versailles

A feast in an African village

It is fascinating how today we take for granted access to these foods which once were only available to the elite - I am able to eat every single one of those foods on the rich list every day if I feel like it, and I am by no means one of the rich elite!

This chocolate basket would once have cost an entire year's salary!

In those olden days it would have been royalty, aristocracy and rich merchants. Today the power of the mighty few has never been more evident - we see them in films, on TV, in gossip magazines, and we watch outrageous displays of indulgence simply for entertainment. But as always, the ostentatious displays of indulgence are not really about the food itself - it is about money. The rich and famous now display their power through consuming the most expensive foods - if the masses are able to eat chocolate and drink wine, what is left for the rich to distinguish themselves with?

There is a website called The Most Expensive Journal, and they have an article on the World's Top Ten Most Expensive Foods. We all know the usual ones - truffles, caviar, and wagyu steak:

Italian White Alba Truffle – $160,406
Expensive truffles are notoriously pricey because they are difficult to cultivate. This makes them a true delicacy which some have called the king of all fungi. The Associate Press reported that a real estate investor and his wife from Hong Kong have paid €125,000 ($160,406 USD) for a gigantic Italian White Alba truffle which is reportedly the world’s most expensive ever. The most expensive truffle weighs in 1.51 kilograms (3.3 lbs).
Italian White Alba Truffle

Almas Caviar – $25,000
Almas caviar comes from Iran making it extremely rare and extremely expensive. The only known outlet is the Caviar House & Prunier in London England’s Picadilly that sells a kilo of the expensive Almas caviar in a 24-karat gold tin for £16,000, or about $25,000. Coincidentally, it is also where you can find the most expensive meal in Britain. The Caviar House also sells a £800 tin for those on a smaller budget.

Almas Caviar

Wagyu Steak – $2800
While Wagyu cattle are raised both in and outside Japan, the Kobe varietal which is raised specifically in the Hyogo prefecture is the most elite. Employing the most traditional production methods, Kobe beef comes from cows that are allegedly fed only beer and massaged by hand to ensure a tenderness and marbling beyond compare. These dishes can be out of range for the average restaurateur, carrying an unhealthy load of fat and a price tag to match. For your next after-work social, you might try taking your associates to New York City’s Craftsteak, where a full Wagyu rib eye was served up to a private party for $2800.

Wagyu Steak

There are other crazy ones listed - Matsutake Mushrooms – $1000/pound; The World’s Most Expensive Bagel – $1000; The Zillion Dollar Frittata – $1000; Samundari Khazana, the World’s Most Expensive Curry – $3200; Domenico Crolla’s “Pizza Royale 007″ – $4200. I mean, seriously? Seems to me that food is not, and never has been, just something to keep people alive.

So.... back to our story of processed foods. How did we end up with the average Joe being able to gorge himself on white breads, fizzy drinks, deep-fried everything, McDonalds, canned meats and, well, all the preservatives and chemical additives that manufacturers can cram in?

Rachel writes: "In the 1880's, the industrialisation of food got underway, long after the production of other common items of consumption such as textiles and clothing had been mechanized. By the beginning of the 20th century, the British working class were drinking sugary tea from china teacups, and eating white bread spread with jam and margarine, canned meats, canned pineapple, and an orange for the Christmas stocking."

Pretty pathetic, right? Going from maize, sweet potatoes, and rye bread - all considered health foods today - to starchy white bread, sugary jam and salty canned meat. By today's health standards, pretty dodgy. And yet, that's still pretty much the diet that the poor people follow today - fruit and veg are for the upper income earners. The coarse wholewheat bread eaten exclusively by the poor before industrialisation caused weakness, indigestion and nausea - your body just can't tolerate it in large quantities. It was much easier to detect sawdust in your white bread, sugar tasted good, and everyone could eat yummy exotic pineapples. And after the rich basically rubbed it in your face all day long that they could eat all these wonderful foods, wouldn't you want them after being denied for so long? What do we splurge on when we celebrate - caviar, lobsters, fancy steaks, oysters?

Lobster tail, steak and champagne - must be a celebration!
   All the things we can't normally afford and which we know the celebrities can eat every day if they want. Or have their chefs prepare, and then simply stare at while eating a lettuce leaf and a carrot, judging by all the twig-thin famous people out there... these days all the fancy foods seem to be for looking at rather than eating if you're an actor.

Lagerfeld has some sick ideas about the ideal...

And we can see how, as we moved towards a faster, quicker world where everything centred around earning money, higher profits, lower costs, and productivity, you certainly didn't want your working population having to spend all their time preparing food. In the 2nd half of the century, Japanese women welcomed factory-made bread because they could sleep in a little longer instead of having to get up to make rice. As we read above, Mexican women seized on bread as a good food to replace the time- and labour-consuming business of preparing tortillas. Working women in India serve commercial bread during the week and save the chapatis for the weekend. Rachel says: "Men had choices other than hard agricultural labour, women other than kneeling at the metate five hours a day."

But I think we are clearly reaching the point where our lives are spiralling out of control. We are all now so busy and stressed out and having to drive for hours in traffic, and work at jobs where we never see the sunshine, that who the heck wants to come home and cook meals from scratch? Who has time to plant a veggie garden on the weekend, when all we want to do is collapse in exhaustion and stare at the TV for a few hours? It's definitely much easier to grab a pizza, heat up a TV dinner, have a few slices of toast with cheese spread. 

An article from Family Circle magazine in 1971 on how to pep up your TV dinners

Today we can get take-out with the click of a mouse!
 The problem comes in when we don't actually know what goes into those processed meals, and the hidden toxic ingredients that we pour into our bodies. Photographer Dwight Eschliman has disassembled the Twinkie - one of the world’s most famous unhealthy eats, it has been around since the 1930s when James Dewar came up with the recipe for a Golden Sponge Cake with Creamy Filling snack for the Hostess brand. Dwight showcases the 37 or so ingredients that go into the Twinkie. This is a picture of the ingredients - it looks like some kind of future space food, right?

Try to match the ingredient list to the individual images!

Enriched Bleached Wheat Flour [Flour, Reduced Iron, B Vitamins (Niacin, Thiamine Mononitrate (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Folic Acid)], Corn Syrup, Sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Water, Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable and/or Animal Shortening (Soybean, Cottonseed and/or Canola Oil, Beef Fat), Whole Eggs, Dextrose. Contains 2% or Less of: Modified Corn Starch, Glucose, Leavenings (Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Baking Soda, Monocalcium Phosphate), Sweet Dairy Whey, Soy Protein Isolate, Calcium and Sodium Caseinate, Salt, Mono and Diglycerides, Polysorbate 60, Soy Lecithin, Soy Flour, Cornstarch, Cellulose Gum, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Sorbic Acid (to Retain Freshness), Yellow 5, Red 40.

So scary!

Here's another dodgy one - A Denver grandmother of eight, who happens to be a trained nutritionist, decided to see for herself just how effective the preservatives used in large segments of the U.S. food system actually are. She left an untouched McDonald's Happy Meal on a shelf in her kitchen for 12 months and has just released photos of the result. As some might expect, the year-old meal of beef, bun and French fries looks hardly different a year after it was first purchased.

Most foods these days contain preservatives, additives, chemicals, colours, flavours and large amounts of sugar and salt. Fruits and vegetables are treated with chemicals while they grow. Cows and pigs and sheep all have to be given hormones and antibiotics, because we insist on feeding them corn and grain instead of grass which is what their digestive systems are designed to eat.

And the average person like me who is trying to stay healthy and eat well and avoid dangerous toxins, really struggles! I now read the lists of ingredients when I go shopping, and often give up in despair when I can't find anything without some chemical in it - when it is labelled "no artificial colours or flavours", it contains preservatives or something else dodgy.

I guess the problem is that we are all no longer in control - our lives are controlled by consumerism. In his article, The Gospel of Consumption, Jeffrey Kaplan writes: "Today “work and more work” is the accepted way of doing things. If anything, improvements to the labor-saving machinery since the 1920s have intensified the trend. Machines can save labor, but only if they go idle when we possess enough of what they can produce. In other words, the machinery offers us an opportunity to work less, an opportunity that as a society we have chosen not to take. Instead, we have allowed the owners of those machines to define their purpose: not reduction of labor, but “higher productivity”—and with it the imperative to consume virtually everything that the machinery can possibly produce."

One of the most influential critics of the Age of Consumerism was Arthur Dahlberg, whose 1932 book Jobs, Machines, and Capitalism discussed the disastrous materialism of society.

“By not shortening the working day when all the wood is in,” he suggested, the profit motive becomes “both the creator and satisfier of spiritual needs.” For when the profit motive can turn nowhere else, “it wraps our soap in pretty boxes and tries to convince us that that is solace to our souls.”

Kaplan says: "We have impoverished our human communities with a form of materialism that leaves us in relative isolation from family, friends, and neighbors. We simply don’t have time for them. Unlike our great-grandparents who passed the time, we spend it. An outside observer might conclude that we are in the grip of some strange curse, like a modern-day King Midas whose touch turns everything into a product built around a microchip."

And our food today reflects this. We simply don't have time - to make our own butter and cheese and bread, or to grow veggies in the backyard. Heck, most families these days have a mom and a dad who work, and neither has the time or inclination at the end of a long, tiring day to cook up a home-made meal from scratch. Last night I made macaroni cheese from scratch, even making the cheese sauce from butter and flour and cheese. The entire cooking process took me 2 hours, with all the prep of ingredients, cooking onions and bacon and making the sauce, boiling and chopping eggs, cooking macaroni, and putting everything together to bake in the oven for 15 minutes. It's pretty obvious why most of us buy instant macaroni cheese from Woolies, or sometimes give in completely and get a family meal from KFC or McDonalds.

This is the reality of our modern world...

One of the original ads when TV dinners started becoming popular

Most of us have these in our freezers

I think that we are living in a very sad era. We work ourselves to death because we have to have money to keep ourselves alive. We spend our money on a whole bunch of material things which we mostly don't really need, but which advertisers tell us will make us happy and fix everything that is wrong with our lives. Lots of companies make products that are really toxic and unsafe, so that they can keep their profits nice and high. Governments don't really get involved like they should, because then big business might get upset with them. We have companies which make foods full of chemicals, and we all buy and eat these foods because its cheap and convenient and we are all too tired to really have any other choice. We all slather our bodies in strange chemical compounds designed by the beauty industry to make us more attractive and younger-looking. We are slowly using up all of our natural resources, as we all throw away last season's clothes, electronic gadgets, shoes, toys, jewellery, furniture and buy everything new again, because a few industrialists in the 1920's worried that the frugal habits maintained by most American families would be difficult to break, and they launched huge PR campaigns to convince people that however much they have, it isn’t enough - so that these same industrialists could be guaranteed healthy profits and a continued fat cat lifestyle. We are slowly killing all the other species on the planet, no matter how many people and agencies work together to try and save them. And we live in the strongest information age the world has ever known, and yet most people are completely oblivious to what is really happening. How utterly sad.

I wonder if there will be people living 100 years from now? Maybe they will look back at this time in history, and shake their heads sadly at the insanity of their ancestors, now that they have changed their destructive ways and found a way to live in harmony with their Earth. But right now... I don't really see how we are ever going to get there.

These images of earth from the movie Wall-E could become all too real... and soon!

As for myself, I am trying to do the best I can and make as many small changes as possible. Use less plastic. Buy natural toiletries and make-up, and household cleaners with no chemicals. Try to re-use as many things as possible. Shop less. And when it comes to food, make as much myself as possible. Read labels, and if they list more than 5 ingredients, put the jar back! Try to eat fruit and veggies with every meal. Buy organic and free-range, even if it costs a little bit more.

These days we can pretty much have any kind of food we want, whenever we want it - not like people in history who starved and struggled and had to eat really horrible things. Or is that really true? There are still lots of people in the world who starve and struggle. And now our local supermarkets stock really yummy foods, but they are filled with, well... really horrible things.

Maybe we should look to some of the posters the US put out during the World Wars.

Food definitely isn't simple, and it seems to have lost its value in our lives.

I don't know what the answer is. I wonder if there will ever be a way to change this? Kaplan says: "If we want to save the Earth, we must also save ourselves from ourselves." 

We should learn from people like these

Tribal people in the Amazon Rainforest

The San People in the Kalahari Desert

The Mongolian Nomadic people

It seems that moving into cities, and becoming more technologically advanced, may be our downfall. Let's learn the old ways of our ancestors again, and find a way to bring them into our modern world!

This is the way life was meant to be... can we find our way forward to this place again?