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Wendell Berry: The Pleasures of Eating

wendell berry

Please enjoy the words and love of a valued farmer, writer and environmental activist.

I give you, “The Pleasures Eating,” by Wendell Berry.

 

Many times, after I have finished a lecture on the decline of American farming and rural life, someone in the audience has asked, “What can city people do?”

“Eat responsibly,” I have usually answered. Of course, I have tried to explain what I mean by that, but afterwards I have invariably felt there was more to be said than I had been able to say. Now I would like to attempt a better explanation.

I begin with the proposition that eating is an agricultural act. Eating ends the annual drama of the food economy that begins with planting and birth. Most eaters, however, are no longer aware that this is true. They think of food as an agricultural product, perhaps, but they do not think of themselves as participants in agriculture. They think of themselves as “consumers.” If they think beyond that, they recognize that they are passive consumers. They buy what they want — or what they have been persuaded to want — within the limits of what they can get. They pay, mostly without protest, what they are charged. And they mostly ignore certain critical questions about the quality and the cost of what they are sold: How fresh is it? How pure or clean is it, how free of dangerous chemicals? How far was it transported, and what did transportation add to the cost? How much did manufacturing or packaging or advertising add to the cost? When the food product has been manufactured or “processed” or “precooked,” how has that affected its quality or price or nutritional value?

Most urban shoppers would tell you that food is produced on farms. But most of them do not know what farms, or what kinds of farms, or where the farms are, or what knowledge of skills are involved in farming. They apparently have little doubt that farms will continue to produce, but they do not know how or over what obstacles. For them, then, food is pretty much an abstract idea — something they do not know or imagine — until it appears on the grocery shelf or on the table.

The specialization of production induces specialization of consumption. Patrons of the entertainment industry, for example, entertain themselves less and less and have become more and more passively dependent on commercial suppliers. This is certainly true also of patrons of the food industry, who have tended more and more to be mere consumers — passive, uncritical, and dependent. Indeed, this sort of consumption may be said to be one of the chief goals of industrial production. The food industrialists have by now persuaded millions of consumers to prefer food that is already prepared. They will grow, deliver, and cook your food for you and (just like your mother) beg you to eat it. That they do not yet offer to insert it, prechewed, into our mouth is only because they have found no profitable way to do so. We may rest assured that they would be glad to find such a way. The ideal industrial food consumer would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach.

Perhaps I exaggerate, but not by much. The industrial eater is, in fact, one who does not know that eating is an agricultural act, who no longer knows or imagines the connections between eating and the land, and who is therefore necessarily passive and uncritical — in short, a victim. When food, in the minds of eaters, is no longer associated with farming and with the land, then the eaters are suffering a kind of cultural amnesia that is misleading and dangerous. The current version of the “dream home” of the future involves “effortless” shopping from a list of available goods on a television monitor and heating precooked food by remote control. Of course, this implies and depends on, a perfect ignorance of the history of the food that is consumed. It requires that the citizenry should give up their hereditary and sensible aversion to buying a pig in a poke. It wishes to make the selling of pigs in pokes an honorable and glamorous activity. The dreams in this dream home will perforce know nothing about the kind or quality of this food, or where it came from, or how it was produced and prepared, or what ingredients, additives, and residues it contains — unless, that is, the dreamer undertakes a close and constant study of the food industry, in which case he or she might as well wake up and play an active an responsible part in the economy of food.

There is, then, a politics of food that, like any politics, involves our freedom. We still (sometimes) remember that we cannot be free if our minds and voices are controlled by someone else. But we have neglected to understand that we cannot be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else. The condition of the passive consumer of food is not a democratic condition. One reason to eat responsibly is to live free.

But if there is a food politics, there are also a food esthetics and a food ethics, neither of which is dissociated from politics. Like industrial sex, industrial eating has become a degraded, poor, and paltry thing. Our kitchens and other eating places more and more resemble filling stations, as our homes more and more resemble motels. “Life is not very interesting,” we seem to have decided. “Let its satisfactions be minimal, perfunctory, and fast.” We hurry through our meals to go to work and hurry through our work in order to “recreate” ourselves in the evenings and on weekends and vacations. And then we hurry, with the greatest possible speed and noise and violence, through our recreation — for what? To eat the billionth hamburger at some fast-food joint hellbent on increasing the “quality” of our life? And all this is carried out in a remarkable obliviousness to the causes and effects, the possibilities and the purposes, of the life of the body in this world.

One will find this obliviousness represented in virgin purity in the advertisements of the food industry, in which food wears as much makeup as the actors. If one gained one’s whole knowledge of food from these advertisements (as some presumably do), one would not know that the various edibles were ever living creatures, or that they all come from the soil, or that they were produced by work. The passive American consumer, sitting down to a meal of pre-prepared or fast food, confronts a platter covered with inert, anonymous substances that have been processed, dyed, breaded, sauced, gravied, ground, pulped, strained, blended, prettified, and sanitized beyond resemblance to any part of any creature that ever lived. The products of nature and agriculture have been made, to all appearances, the products of industry. Both eater and eaten are thus in exile from biological reality. And the result is a kind of solitude, unprecedented in human experience, in which the eater may think of eating as, first, a purely commercial transaction between him and a supplier and then as a purely appetitive transaction between him and his food.

And this peculiar specialization of the act of eating is, again, of obvious benefit to the food industry, which has good reasons to obscure the connection between food and farming. It would not do for the consumer to know that the hamburger she is eating came from a steer who spent much of his life standing deep in his own excrement in a feedlot, helping to pollute the local streams, or that the calf that yielded the veal cutlet on her plate spent its life in a box in which it did not have room to turn around. And, though her sympathy for the slaw might be less tender, she should not be encouraged to meditate on the hygienic and biological implications of mile-square fields of cabbage, for vegetables grown in huge monocultures are dependent on toxic chemicals — just as animals in close confinements are dependent on antibiotics and other drugs.

The consumer, that is to say, must be kept from discovering that, in the food industry — as in any other industry — the overriding concerns are not quality and health, but volume and price. For decades now the entire industrial food economy, from the large farms and feedlots to the chains of supermarkets and fast-food restaurants has been obsessed with volume. It has relentlessly increased scale in order to increase volume in order (probably) to reduce costs. But as scale increases, diversity declines; as diversity declines, so does health; as health declines, the dependence on drugs and chemicals necessarily increases. As capital replaces labor, it does so by substituting machines, drugs, and chemicals for human workers and for the natural health and fertility of the soil. The food is produced by any means or any shortcuts that will increase profits. And the business of the cosmeticians of advertising is to persuade the consumer that food so produced is good, tasty, healthful, and a guarantee of marital fidelity and long life.

It is possible, then, to be liberated from the husbandry and wifery of the old household food economy. But one can be thus liberated only by entering a trap (unless one sees ignorance and helplessness as the signs of privilege, as many people apparently do). The trap is the ideal of industrialism: a walled city surrounded by valves that let merchandise in but no consciousness out. How does one escape this trap? Only voluntarily, the same way that one went in: by restoring one’s consciousness of what is involved in eating; by reclaiming responsibility for one’s own part in the food economy. One might begin with the illuminating principle of Sir Albert Howard’s , that we should understand “the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man as one great subject.” Eaters, that is, must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used. This is a simple way of describing a relationship that is inexpressibly complex. To eat responsibly is to understand and enact, so far as we can, this complex relationship. What can one do? Here is a list, probably not definitive:

1. Participate in food production to the extent that you can. If you have a yard or even just a porch box or a pot in a sunny window, grow something to eat in it. Make a little compost of your kitchen scraps and use it for fertilizer. Only by growing some food for yourself can you become acquainted with the beautiful energy cycle that revolves from soil to seed to flower to fruit to food to offal to decay, and around again. You will be fully responsible for any food that you grow for yourself, and you will know all about it. You will appreciate it fully, having known it all its life.

2. Prepare your own food. This means reviving in your own mind and life the arts of kitchen and household. This should enable you to eat more cheaply, and it will give you a measure of “quality control”: you will have some reliable knowledge of what has been added to the food you eat.

3. Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home. The idea that every locality should be, as much as possible, the source of its own food makes several kinds of sense. The locally produced food supply is the most secure, freshest, and the easiest for local consumers to know about and to influence.

4. Whenever possible, deal directly with a local farmer, gardener, or orchardist. All the reasons listed for the previous suggestion apply here. In addition, by such dealing you eliminate the whole pack of merchants, transporters, processors, packagers, and advertisers who thrive at the expense of both producers and consumers.

5. Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production. What is added to the food that is not food, and what do you pay for those additions?

6. Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening.

7. Learn as much as you can, by direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of the food species.

The last suggestion seems particularly important to me. Many people are now as much estranged from the lives of domestic plants and animals (except for flowers and dogs and cats) as they are from the lives of the wild ones. This is regrettable, for these domestic creatures are in diverse ways attractive; there is such pleasure in knowing them. And farming, animal husbandry, horticulture, and gardening, at their best, are complex and comely arts; there is much pleasure in knowing them, too.

It follows that there is great displeasure in knowing about a food economy that degrades and abuses those arts and those plants and animals and the soil from which they come. For anyone who does know something of the modern history of food, eating away from home can be a chore. My own inclination is to eat seafood instead of red meat or poultry when I am traveling. Though I am by no means a vegetarian, I dislike the thought that some animal has been made miserable in order to feed me. If I am going to eat meat, I want it to be from an animal that has lived a pleasant, uncrowded life outdoors, on bountiful pasture, with good water nearby and trees for shade. And I am getting almost as fussy about food plants. I like to eat vegetables and fruits that I know have lived happily and healthily in good soil, not the products of the huge, bechemicaled factory-fields that I have seen, for example, in the Central Valley of California. The industrial farm is said to have been patterned on the factory production line. In practice, it looks more like a concentration camp.

The pleasure of eating should be an extensive pleasure, not that of the mere gourmet. People who know the garden in which their vegetables have grown and know that the garden is healthy and remember the beauty of the growing plants, perhaps in the dewy first light of morning when gardens are at their best. Such a memory involves itself with the food and is one of the pleasures of eating. The knowledge of the good health of the garden relieves and frees and comforts the eater. The same goes for eating meat. The thought of the good pasture and of the calf contentedly grazing flavors the steak. Some, I know, will think of it as bloodthirsty or worse to eat a fellow creature you have known all its life. On the contrary, I think it means that you eat with understanding and with gratitude. A significant part of the pleasure of eating is in one’s accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes. The pleasure of eating, then, may be the best available standard of our health. And this pleasure, I think, is pretty fully available to the urban consumer who will make the necessary effort.

I mentioned earlier the politics, esthetics, and ethics of food. But to speak of the pleasure of eating is to go beyond those categories. Eating with the fullest pleasure — pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance — is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend. When I think of the meaning of food, I always remember these lines by the poet William Carlos Williams, which seem to me merely honest:

There is nothing to eat,
seek it where you will,
but the body of the Lord.
The blessed plants
and the sea, yield it
to the imagination intact.

1989

“The Pleasures of Eating” from WHAT ARE PEOPLE FOR? by Wendell Berry. Copyright © 1990 by Wendell Berry.

Not All Sugars are Created Equal

Sugar-Types
Dietary carbohydrates, or sugars, play a critical role in our health because they provide us with our primary source of energy we need for proper bodily function. Though crucial to our health, most of us are aware that too much sugar can cause detrimental effects to our bodies, leading to obesity, diabetes and heart disease. What many of us may not be aware of is how different types of carbohydrates, or sugars, affect our body differently. The fact is, not all sugars are created equal.

Carbohydrates are classified into three basic groups: dietary fiber, simple sugars, and complex sugars. Dietary fiber is the indigestible part of plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes. Dietary fiber does not exist in animal products such as meat, eggs and milk. This type of carbohydrate is great for digestive health. It slows the digestion process which makes you feel full for longer, aids in blood sugar regulation, as well as increases bowl bulk due to its indigestible nature, promoting regularity. Whole grains, vegetables, nuts and legumes are the ideal sources for fiber intake verses supplement forms.

Complex sugars are named so because they are larger compounds that take our bodies longer to break down or digest. One of the most important health benefits complex sugars provide is that it aids in blood sugar control. By breaking down more slowly, sugar is released into our blood more gradually which helps maintain balanced and healthy vascular and central nervous systems. If sugar is released into our blood too quickly, or at too high of a volume, this can increase fat production as well as can cause sometimes irreversible damage to our bodies.

There are common misconceptions in our culture concerning simple carbohydrates. Simple sugars breakdown easily in our bodies because they are only either one or two sugar molecule compounds. One sugar molecule compounds are usually our refined sugars, which include sucrose (table sugar) and the infamous high-fructose corn syrup, which are both found in most processed foods. Two sugar compounds are found in fruits, root vegetables, honey, and milk. These types of sugars are considered advantageous over refined sugar. They are usually in combination with other vitamins, minerals and fiber, which aid its utilization and overall health benefits verses something like table sugar, because of the intense refining process, other nutrients that it could have possessed are removed.

Though evidence shows that there is not a direct link in disease due to a certain type of sugar, it is recognized that because as a nation we have almost doubled our sugar intake in general over the past 30 years, mostly due to an increase in our refined sugar intake, is why we are seeing increases of such diseases as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. These sugars are stripped of any sort of nutrient content and usually eaten in large quantities.  By decreasing our refined sugar intake and increasing our intake of fiber, complex sugars and non-refined simple sugars such as fruit and root vegetables, we are simultaneously increasing our overall intake of essential vitamins, minerals and other amazing health-protecting nutrients and thus making great contributions to our overall health.

The Fort Collins Food Co-op is an excellent place to help you eat a more nutrition and balanced diet.  We carry a full line of all organic fresh produce, are fully stocked with bulk whole grains, ancient grains, rice, nuts, seeds and legumes and amazing supply of over a hundred different dried herbs and spices.

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Ask the Doc: Why is Grass-fed important?

Why is Grass-fed important?

By: Joan D Waters, Naturopathic Doctor

More and more people are eating and talking about grass-fed meat and poultry…is it just a fad?

Grass-fed meat and poultry and the eggs from pastured chickens provide a natural source of Vitamin K2. The intestinal flora in animals converts chlorophyll, the green pigment in forage, to Vitamin K2. Vitamin K2, not to be confused with Vitamin K1, which is needed for clotting, removes calcium from soft tissues and deposits it into bones and teeth by activating osteocalcin, a protein found in those tissues. When activated by Vitamin K2, Osteocalcin binds to calcium and draws that calcium into the bones and teeth. Vitamins A and D are needed to cause the osteoblasts, or bone-building cells, to secrete osteocalcin. Some people believe that the increased prevalence of atherosclerosis may be associated with the buildup of calcium in soft tissues brought about by the practice of feeding cattle grain, rather than grass. More research is needed to determine whether this is true.

Vitamin K2 can be obtained naturally by eating grass fed meats and poultry, the eggs from pastured chickens, and milk, butter and cheeses from cows that are grass fed. Natto, a fermented Asian food, is also a potent source of vitamin K2. Those who can’t consume dairy may make ghee from butter made from the milk of pastured cows. It is the presence of Vitamin K2 in fatty foods that gives them their deep yellow or orange color. The Vitamin K2 content of grass-fed but grain-finished beef is much lower than in grass fed beef. When buying ‘grass-fed’ meat in a store, you may have to ask whether they were grain-finished.

We need to support our local farmers and CSAs who fill this important niche in our ecosystem – by providing meat, poultry and eggs that contain adequate amounts of Vitamin K2. Conventionally raised and processed meats cost less to produce. The government subsidizes farmers who grow certain grains so this brings the cost of grain feed down. Farmers and ranchers can raise cattle up to butchering age much more quickly if they feed them grain rather than grass, so are able to minimize the labor costs of raising each individual head of cattle. Conventionally raised cattle are often given low doses of antibiotics, which can cause antibiotic resistant bacteria to grow in these cattle. Poultry are sometimes sprayed with chlorine to kill bacteria on them. We can usually avoid these perils in our food supply when we purchase local meat, poultry and eggs from our local farmer. More on these subjects in later posts.

If you choose to supplement with Vitamin K2, 45 mg of menaquinone-4 (MK-4) three times daily or 120 mcgs of menaquinone 7 (MK-7) once daily are the recommended doses. MK-7 has a longer half-life so needs to be taken only once per day. More is not necessarily better. Since calcium is utilized for clotting and for muscle contractility, including cardiac contractility, we need to release it from the soft tissues very gradually to avoid causing other health problems. For the body to utilize Vitamin K2, we also need Vitamins A, D and E. These vitamins are all fat-soluble so they will be absorbed better when taken with food, especially with oils.

For more information on this subject, you may want to read the book entitled Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox by Kate Rheaume-Bleue.

By Joan D Waters, naturopathic doctor Practical Health Solutions 1304 S College Ave #4 Ft Collins, CO 80524

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