Column Do our favorite healthy foods come at a social cost?
We live in a world where we care less about what’s good for us and more about what’s trendy and supposedly good for us. Instead of seeking out foods and ingredients that make us feel good, we just do what the latest food trend du jour tells us to do. Which is why you have way more people sipping on kale smoothies than chard smoothies. Poor little chard.
If that kind of decision making only lead to problems related to overdosing on almond milk cappuccinos (for the love of god: please just order black coffee) and discoloration from consumption of too many açai berries (I mean, that has to happen, right?) that would be one thing. But our taste for these sought after healthy foods, the foods that will solve all of our problems if only we add them to every single meal and snack in between, has an impact, far beyond our plates.
When society decides that a certain food is good for it, big business flocks immediately. And when big business is involved, you can be sure that something or someone is suffering.
Let’s take a look at coconuts for a minute. There’s no denying coconut in all of its forms – oil, milk, water – has been incredibly popular in the healthy food and lifestyle circles. In fact, as journalist Maddie Oatman recently pointed out in an article on the coconut craze on Mother Jones, between 2008 and 2012, the number of coconut oil products, both for cooking and for beauty, grew by 800 percent. But that all comes at a cost, and I am not talking about the cost of your $90 coconut oil facial moisturizer.
“In the Philippines, the world’s second-largest coconut producer after Indonesia, nearly two-thirds of small-scale coconut farmers live in poverty. Though harvesting the fruit requires a perilous climb, often up trees treated with harsh pesticides, they make just $3 a day at the height of the harvest,” writes Oatman. “Each coconut yields around 500 mL of liquid; a 12-ounce bottle uses about two-thirds of a nut. Of the $2 that you pay for a bottle of the stuff, the farmer makes between 7 and 14 cents. And don’t forget that all that coconut water must be shipped across the planet, adding considerably to the product’s greenhouse gas footprint.”
Standing in front of the grocery shelf, with only our personal interests in mind (I want something that’s good for me!), it’s easy to push these other costs out of sight and out of mind. But coconuts aren’t the only culprit.
According to the Almond Board of California, in 2013, almond product introductions were so big, that they outpaced overall food and nut introductions around the world, growing 35 percent compared with only 10 percent the previous year. Sales of almond milk alone come out at $700 million a year. Almond milk, almond flour, almond butter: all things that we choose to buy because we want to replace something else, often for the best intentions, but those intentions still have an impact. Almonds is one of many thirsty crops that despite being in the midst of a staggering drought, California farmers managed to have an all-time record year, selling $54 billion worth of crops. How? Because they’re reaching far down in to the groundwater, which is having consequences like sinking farmland. According to the New York Times, “scientists have no real idea if the groundwater supplies can last until the 2040s.”
Gluten-free is another healthy food trend that has boosted big business. Sales of gluten-free products are projected to grow upwards of $2 billion in the coming years. But has access to more gluten-free products made us feel any better? While cutting out conventional flour, stripped of its nutritional value, certainly has its benefit, switching out one processed product for another certainly doesn’t. Turn that gluten-free package around and if you see a questionably long list of ingredients whose names you can’t pronounce, put it right back from where it came from. Many of those products don’t benefit your health in the slightest, but they definitely help the businesses behind them prosper.
Which all brings us back to the question of our taste for healthy foods. As I wrote recently, when it comes to thinking about healthy foods, we can’t just think about me. Inevitably, we have to branch out and think about the us, about the good of not just our immediate community but our global one as well. If our healthy habits depend on externalized environmental and social costs, then they’re not really so healthy after all.
Kick your coconut water habit and get back to real water instead, from the tap, not bottled. Don’t want to eat gluten? Don’t buy the processed gluten-free cookies. Want to go on a plant-based diet? Find options that are locally sourced, and not imported all the way from across the planet. And when there’s an ingredient that you just can’t live without? Use it in moderation, not in every single meal, every single day.
There’s a solution to most of our problems, and that solution is real food. Food which doesn’t have a marketing campaign behind it, doesn’t have the word “product” in it, doesn’t come in sexy packaging and doesn’t make a whole lot of money for big business. If we really want to eat healthy, for us, for our community, for our planet, then that’s the route that we need to go.
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This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at www.foodieunderground.com.
Image: Mike Mozart