Monday, July 14, 2008

Navigating the Health Food Industry

One of my favorite Christian authors, Douglas Wilson, has a couple of interesting posts on his blog about the Christian’s attitude toward natural, organic and chemical-free foods. One is called Little Robot Bees: Creation and Food and other is: The Corporation is Way Ahead of You. Here are some excerpts:

"Food corporations" -- so is natural and organic farming big business or not? "Factories" -- do those green and healthy-looking tortilla chips make themselves? "Pills" -- but only pills with chemicals in them are bad and those with nutrients in them are good. Glad that's settled. "Factory farming" -- when the demand for real healthy milk gets up to the gazillion-dollar-a-year level, which should be any day now, I will be really interested to visit the dairy farms that will no doubt be right there to meet this demand, and to take careful note of the ways in which such operations do not resemble factory farming. "Health food" -- a bit like one Christian saying that he attends a "Spirit-filled church," wondering what kind you attend.

These are words that are being used to obscure. Scripture requires equal weights and measures. If one side gets corporations, then so does the other. If one side doesn't get to have them, then the other side can't either.

I don’t believe that Wilson is saying let’s abandon the pursuit of eating healthy food. He just wants to make sure there aren’t a bunch of Christians that are being duped by the “health-food” industry. His point in the honey article is that one jar says “natural” on it and another jar doesn’t. Neither of them were made by little robot bees. Natural has become a marketing technique that has almost no meaning. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t avoid certain pesticides and additives. It’s only that a large number of people are often misled by advertising and corporations and big businesses like Whole Foods knows it. Wilson says:

And if I may make an important point in passing, if anyone seriously thinks that by going natural, he will be escaping the Establishment, finally getting away from "the Man" and from the clutches of the food corporations, I have a bit of bad news. The corporations are way ahead of you. There are high-powered boards sitting around half-an-acre mahogany tables on the 33rd floor of skyscrapers in New York City, and they are meeting right this minute, and they are making decisions on the marketing of the Ponderosa Pine bark chips, lightly salted. If you slice them thin enough, they approach being edible. We are long past the point where the money involved in all this caught the attention of the "food corporations." The Man knows all about you and your penchant for dinners that are synchronized with the rhythms of the earth. The Man likes your penchants, and he is there to serve them.

He closes with this:

Okay, to sum up. We are choosing (generally) between two different styles of lifestyle eating. Both involve manufactured and processed foods that have passed through factories, and they all have chemicals in them. All the factories are owned by corporations. What do we do now?

I think the point is not that we cease exploring the problems with over-processed foods, and harmful additives or preservatives, but that we don’t allow ourselves to be misled by a fad. But I'm all about avoiding harmful foods. For instance, I am in the process of composing a post exposing all the harmful effects that hydrogenated oils have on our bodies. I’ve been working on this post for awhile because there are so many conclusive studies linking so many different kinds of health problems related to eating this lab oil, that I can barely wade through it all. We all know about its dramatic effect on aiding heart disease, but did you know it does immune system and reproductive damage as well? (Until you read this post, stay away from Crisco, margarine, most processed peanut butter, and most importantly McDonalds!)

I tell you that to show that even though I’m skeptical of much of the “health-food” industry, I do believe in eating healthy; we have a vegetable garden in our backyard. It doesn’t have to be an either/or: either your kids have to live on Cheetos and pop exclusively or you have to walk daily to your local mom and pop natural grocier wearing Birkenstocks and refusing deodorant in the middle of summer. But we do somehow tend to form camps and we need to make sure we are educated about what exactly we are buying into.


Mary Anne said...

Amen, Leslie! There is only one solution I can think of to the confusions created by the food industry: look for foods "Made by God"! You know? Good old fruits, veggies, beans, grains, and even meat. I take comfort in knowing that when I can't figure out the label on the all-natural yet super-processed bark/chips, at least I can turn to a banana instead and say thanks to God for making such a beautiful thing! :)

That's so great that you guys have a garden! What do you grow? I only have one little tomato plant at my apartment, but I love it!

p.s. I hope you post your research on the hydrogenated oils. I'm really interested in hearing about that.

Mary Anne

Robyn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leslie said...

I think you missed the point of the article. You said: "Wilson's argument takes the tone of 'us against the food industry' which doesn't necessarily need to be the case." The point is that there are many people out there that say that they are against big business farming, the big business food industry,and food corporations on principle. If that is your principle, you just can't shop at Whole Foods. If you have other principles such as you like Whole Foods big business practices better than you like Wal-mart's, no one has a problem with that. Or if you say, I'm not against big business farming as long as it's done the way Whole Foods does it, fine. Just don't say you're against big business and then shop at Whole Foods, you know?

You also said that Wilson is up in arms about "the Man, and big business" but he's not actually concerned about those things. He's saying that people pretend to be concerned about those things and then go against their own principles by shopping at big businesses.

Nobody's against reading a label and choosing a product with healthy ingredients. All I'm saying is that just because it says natural doesn't mean it's good for you. Make sure that you don't buy it because it says natural without reading the label (I know you don't, but natural is the fad).

Also, no one is trying to demonize Whole Foods and say they are doing anything against Christianity. The point once again, is that if someone says they are against the "money making food machine" they don't have anywhere to shop. It's not wrong to want to make a profit and to make food that sells. Wilson's point was that Whole Foods, Safeway, Wal-mart, are all owned by big corporations and all want to make money. No problem there, let's just agree this is the world we live in. Now if someone wants to say they are against big corporations and not shop at Whole Foods but only farmers markets, no problem there either. Just be consistent. I hope this answers some of your objections.

Robyn said...

(I reposted this so my hyperlink to Whole Foods would work)
Les, I agree with some of the things Douglas Wilson says but I think others things he says are uninformed and reactionary. When he says: "We are choosing (generally) between two different styles of lifestyle eating. Both involve manufactured and processed foods that have passed through factories, and they all have chemicals in them. All the factories are owned by corporations.", this is just not true. First off, no one needs to be 'duped' by foods claiming to be 'natural' that aren't natural. Every consumer has the ability to check the label. For example, Nathan and I buy fruit bars labeled 'All Natural'. The ingredients in the bar are "Apple and pear concentrate, grape, elderberry, blueberry and lemon juice concentrates, citrus pectin, and apple fiber." That's all. The bar is made by a self-owned company that makes only 100% fruit products with no added sugars or artificial flavors or colors, a policy they have had since 1946, before the 'natural fad' began. A similar product, fruit snacks we found in the pantry, contain these ingredients: "corn syrup, sugar, apple puree concentrate, water, modified corn starch, gelatin, citric acid, ascorbic acid, artificial flavor, color added, hydrogenated coconut oil, carnauba wax, yellow #5, red #40, sodium citrate, blue #1". Sure, the box didn't claim to be natural, but I made a choice and was able to purchase a product that did not have ingredients to which I am opposed. I certainly agree that people will try to make a buck wherever they can, however they can, but saying that all foods are basically produced the same way by the same types of people is wrong, in my opinion. I know there are people who have a problem with Whole Foods, but I would ask those people to do more research before just pointing the finger and proclaiming their sneaky evilness. Douglas Wilson claims that your food will have chemicals no matter where they come from, but if you shop at Whole Foods, your food will never contain any of the ingredients listed here
Not only that, every product is free from artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners, and hydrogenated fats. Finally, I believe it is wrong to portray companies like Whole Foods as deceitful money grubbers owned by 'big business' when they are one of 14 companies to have made the '100 Best Companies to Work For' list for 11 out of 11 years. Furthermore, the company imposes a salary cap for all executives, and the chief executive and founder set his salary at $1.00 (of course he has stock options). Whole Foods is a self-contained corporation with 4 subsidiaries, 2 of which are seafood processing facilities, one coffee company (of which the headquarters are 100% wind-powered) and one Produce field inspection office. In the produce section, many labels tell you exactly where the produce came from. At the Whole Foods in Ohio, produce labels listed the individual farms where the produce originated, and the Whole Foods website points you to over 50 local farms in the Midwest region that any one can check out, if one were so inclined. Additionally, I enjoyed purchasing fresh eggs delivered from Amish farms everyday.
The reason I am vehemently defending Whole Foods is because I believe it is wrong to be reactionary on principle, and I also believe it is wrong to make aggrandized claims such as 'all foods have chemicals in them' and to get up in arms about 'food corporations', 'The Man', and 'Big Business'. Nothing Whole Foods does is against Christianity, and if anything, they are supporting more biblical principles than any other grocer we patronize (Safeway is owned by Mormons, and I certainly hope no one is praising the practices of the Walton family, which has enough wealth to feed the entire continent of Africa for 20 years). Furthermore, Douglas Wilson's argument takes the tone of 'us against the food industry' which doesn't necessarily need to be the case. I feel that, oftentimes, Christians look at places like Whole Foods and Great Harvest, places that offer an alternative to what I consider the horrors of Wal-mart, as magnets for hippies and 'granolas', and vilify them solely on the basis of their patrons. I enjoyed working at Great Harvest, where they ground the wheat everyday, where no chemicals ever got near the bread, and where they sold honey made at the owner's friends house in Fort Collins, which I personally visited. I still patronize Great Harvest because I don't want dough conditioners, acesulfame potassium, ethoxylated mono and diglycerides, corn syrup, soybean oil, etc, etc, etc. in my bread or body. Just like in the environmentalism argument, it doesn't need to be us Christians against those lying hippies. People's food choices are their own, and I disdain Douglas Wilson for clouding the issue and acting as if we have no options in our food choices when, in truth, there are many ways to make informed choices about our food, and many companies that are dedicated to healthy foods.

Hope I didn't come off sounding too harsh!!


Leslie said...

By the way Deep Fried Twinkie Lady (Robyn ate a DEEP FRIED Twinkie and liked it!) none of this post was directed at you even though you shop at Whole Foods, or anyone else who necessarily shops there.

Robyn said...

Oh, but I never ate a deep-fried twinkie, only tasted a deep-fried Mars bar (which is only marginally better). I read both of his posts in their entirety, and I don't think I missed the points of the articles at all; I just chose to address points which were particularly grievous to me. I really think the whole thing is a giant non-issue. I mean, seriously, do we really need to be concerning ourselves with whether or not we are being duped by 'natural' foods? Is it really necessary to comment on this non-threatening issue, especially when there are other larger issues in the food community, like how we have abused our calling to be stewards to the animals and earth as represented by the atrocious cattle industry? I agree that people who are going to get on a high horse about 'big business' have few shopping choices, but it's not as if there aren't any alternatives. Perhaps I am being defensive because I don't want to be accused of 'Thinking outside of Jesus' just because I chose to buy foods that are less processed, and because I believe food labels to represent a healthier product when they list 5 ingredients as opposed to 25. On a side note, I ate Lucky Charms for breakfast, half a bag of MnMs, and snacked on some Cheez-its so it's not as if I have made 'natural foods' my life mantra. I just think it's adding injury to insult to bring what I believe is misinformation to something that is already a non-issue.
Btw, honey that has high fructose corn syrup would not be considered natural by most 'natural' product brands. That's just someone trying to make a buck off a fad.