The Ecology of Food

ColumnThe real danger of functional foods.

You’re standing in the cereal, snack, drink, or dairy aisle and the packages are screaming their claims at you: “high fiber,” “low fat,” “contains probiotics,” “now with added soy protein.”

Welcome to the world of functional foods—foods that claim to have health promoting or disease-preventing properties beyond the basic function of supplying nutrients.

Healthy food doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The idea that we can take a nutrient that has been proven in one study to lower cholesterol, increase energy, or repair cells, and then simply add it to a processed food to give that food a healthier profile is faulty. It’s an illustration of our societal belief that every problem can be solved and there is a formula to doing so. If you don’t believe we in this society share such a belief, take a walk through the self-help section in any bookstore and look at the book titles.

It would be simple to advise not buying packaged food, and indeed, I have said that in this column before. But ultimately, I think we need to look at food and nutrition ecologically. Each nutrient is part of a functional system and each food that we ingest is a part of the body’s functional system. Beyond that, the food we eat is also part of our larger socio-economic and cultural system around food.

When I shop for food I think a lot about the different levels of nourishment in it. Does it nourish my heart, my soul? Does it nourish my pleasure centers by tasting good? Does it nourish the relationships I have with the people I’m eating with? Does it nourish the environment, or cause harm? Does it nourish the people who produce it, or exploit them?

To take an ecological view of food is to understand that the physical, cultural, social, environmental, and economic results of ingesting a food or nutrient cannot be predicted or understood in isolation. Foods interact with one another, in the body, around the table, and in society—all of which contribute to their overall ability to nourish. None of this can described by a marketing claim.

Next time you’re shopping, instead of thinking about whether the food in your cart is going to provide you with the proper balance of Omega-3s and 6s, sufficient antioxidants to prevent cancer, or enough fiber to lower your cholesterol, think about how it will taste, who you will eat it with, how you will prepare it, where it came from, who produced it and if it’s in season. In short, think about whether that food is the right thing for you to eat right now.

The marketing of functional foods is not just annoying because it takes advantage of consumer confusion and fear around nutrition, it’s also dangerous because it assumes we don’t have our own holistic understanding of food and, in the end, dis-empowers us to make our own decisions about what to eat.

When you see the following statements or ingredients on a package of food, chances are what you’re buying isn’t nutrition but marketing:

Soy protein
Green Tea (unless the product is tea)
Reduces cholesterol
Clinically proven
Heart healthy
Digestive health

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: The Impulsive Buy via Flickr

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.