So, what is it? Good eating, I mean. The first thought that comes to mind might be food that is delicious, or virtuous, or beautiful. Images of Alton Brown might even flash before your eyes. Any number of things might come to mind when you think of good eating. I used to think that good eating was simply good food — anything delicious. Of course, good food should be delicious, but I’ve come to think of good eating as so much more.
Good eating starts with good food. What constitutes good food, it turns out, is a much more complicated subject than the food simply being tasty. After reading a couple of Michael Pollan’s books (The Omnivores Dilemma and In Defense of Food) — both of which I highly recommend — it became abundantly clear to me that good food is more than just a great tasting steak or crispy golden french fry. To find and eat good food, is to understand where the food comes from, how it is grown or fed, and ultimately how it ends up on your plate from start to finish.
Without getting into all the details at this juncture, the less processed the food, the more local it is, and the more natural the environment and the ecosystem from which it comes, the more “good” it is. It boils down to this, highly processed food is typically filled with various pseudo-foods, chemicals, and additives that make it a dubious proposition at best to eat such things. Of course, you probably already know this. The more difficult task is reckoning which of the seemingly whole, unprocessed foods are really what they claim to be.
For example, the other day I was shopping for greek yogurt at my local grocer; a seemingly simple task. I wanted to make a yogurt marinade for some lamb kebabs I planned to grill that evening. Normally, I would just grab some plain ZOI greek yogurt and call it a day. However, after reading Pollan’s books, I have been paying more attention to what is in the food I buy and where it comes from. So naturally, I look at the back of the ZOI container to read its ingredients.
I expected to see cultured milk and live cultures — the only two things you need to make yogurt — but what I also see is milk protein concentrate, Vitamin A Palmitate, and Vitamin D3. I get that fortifying with the vitamins can be good for our health, but what is the milk protein concentrate for? Texture perhaps? I don’t know, but I’m concerned about a couple of things now. First, I don’t know much about milk protein concentrate. What kind of milk made this concentrate? How much processing did it endure? Second, the living conditions of the dairy cows that supply the milk for the yogurt I’m holding in my hands are a mystery. Are these cows confined to a pen and hooked up to a milking machine all day long? What are they fed? The container only guarantees that the cows are not treated with growth hormones.
Why should any of that matter? Well, that question requires a more complicated answer than I write here. But consider this. Whatever the cow eats, supplies the nutrients to create the milk, which in turn creates the yogurt I plan to slather all over my lamb kebabs, grill, and finally consume. So what the cow eats, I eat. The old adage, you are what you eat, holds true. So if these are industrial dairy cows supplying the milk to the ZOI yogurt, then you can bet they have been fed a diet of cheap corn and highly processed food formulas…Yum. I have no way of knowing, but I’d venture if they aren’t advertising otherwise, this yogurt is definitely the product of industrial dairy cows.
Disturbed by my findings, I scanned the rest of the dairy case in search of more wholesome options. I finally settle on a container of Stonyfield Organic greek yogurt with two ingredients: cultured organic whole milk and live cultures. Even better, the milk in this yogurt comes from pasture raised cattle. Pasture raised cows move around every day and eat at least some real grass. However, there is no guarantee that grass is the only thing that the cows eat. This yogurt comes from New Hampshire as well, making it hardly local. In the end this is the best option available to me on the shelf. Is it perfect? No. The cows could be 100% grass fed and it would be even better if the milk came from a local Oregon dairy farm. But even so, in my opinion, this yogurt a far better option than my original choice.
Of course, there are always tradeoffs. The Stonyfield yogurt (30 cents per ounce) is more expensive than the ZOI equivalent (14 cents per ounce). The increase in cost may not be feasible for everyone. However, there are additional costs to eating industrial food that should also be considered. The industrial food chain has negative impacts on your health, the food ecosystem, and much more. In future posts, I’ll do my best to describe these impacts in more detail. However, I refer the interested reader to Pollan’s books for a detailed treatment of these issues.
My yogurt shopping adventure shows that good eating isn’t always as simple as it sounds. Even something as innocent as buying yogurt can be fraught with questions and uncertainties. However, with some care, we can all take steps towards eating more local, wholesome foods, grown or fed from healthy soils. Good eating starts with more awareness around the food we eat. It means asking where our food comes, what’s in it, and how it’s made. This is all still new to me as well and I struggle to remember to ask these questions when I am shopping for my food. But every day that goes by, I am working towards making good eating a part of every meal.
Now, all that said, I am not some hyper local organic food zealot. I get that our everyday lives make it difficult and sometimes impossible to eat the foods we would like. So, while I am beginning to source my food as local as possible and wean myself off the industrial food chain, you might still see me getting my fourthmeal on at the Taco Bell drive-thru or buying dried chillies from Mexico for my chilli braised pork shoulder. The important thing is to source good food as often as you can, so that you too can venture down the path of good eating.