The first time I went to a grocery store after moving to the US, I literally jumped in joy at the opulence of it all…The fruits and vegetables were perfectly waxed and huge compared to the little discolored runts found in India. I marveled as my host-mother Marlene selected these enormous, beautiful tomatoes and white onions and a head of lettuce that was bigger than my own head.
We went back home, and I helped her make this wonderful looking salad, and we sat down to eat.
I bit into a slice of tomato, ready for the burst of fresh flavor to attack my tongue.
And … nothing!
I blinked. I ate another slice. Same result.
The lettuce leaf was also just a watery bite of nothing. Deflated, I followed my host mother’s suggestion and loaded up my salad with some sugary honey mustard dressing.
Now, my dear American consumer friends, I have a question. How is it that the wealthiest nation on the planet produces the worst tasting vegetables and fruits?
How indeed? The short answer is that the way our food is grown is guaranteed to give us beautiful, tasteless, nutritionally deficient food with long shelf lives. Then it is processed into calorie-dense food products. The unhealthy result is that our meals are dense in calories but sparse in nutrition and flavor, so our bodies crave more nutrition and pleasure than is found on our plates. We respond to this by drowning our tasteless salad in calorie-dense dressing and reaching for that cheesecake dessert so that we get the rush of pleasure that is supposed to accompany the experience of eating.
What We Hunger For
In 1999, researchers surveyed a total of 1,281 adults from the U.S., Belgium, France and Japan regarding their feelings about food. The results were striking. For Europeans, eating is a pleasurable experience. For Americans, it is an activity fraught with anxiety and guilt. The Japanese fell between these extremes. The study leader, Dr. Paul Rozin, summarized the outcome this way: "The French emphasis in eating is on the experience of eating; the American emphasis is on the effects of eating.” For Americans, food is that scary stuff that makes us fat. And when we eat something that we enjoy, we are likely to describe it as a “guilty pleasure.”
Now let me remind you that, as I reported in the previous post, Americans do not necessarily eat more than Europeans.
What is apparent from this graph from the Food Service Warehouse is that Americans consume only about 100 calories more per day than the French or Italians. Yet our obesity rate is 2-3 times greater than theirs, as you can see on this interactive graph from the International Association for the Study of Obesity.
Calorie Dense, Nutritionally Poor
So if we are not eating more, why are we so much fatter? In previous posts, I pointed out the enormous difference in daily work-life balance stress levels between Americans and Europeans, and how stress directly shifts metabolic functions toward fat creation and fat storage. But there is one more very important difference.
According to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the American diet is becoming increasingly energy-rich but nutrient-poor.
A landmark study comparing the nutritional content of 43 different fruits and vegetables in 1950 and 1999 was published in 2004 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. The results showed quite definitively that the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C have declined substantially over the past half century. The study authors attributed this decline in nutritional content to agricultural practices designed to improve food qualities such as size, growth rate, pest resistance rather than nutrition.
According to the World Watch Institute, farmers today can grow two to three times as much grain, fruit, and vegetables on a plot of land as they could 50 years ago, but that food contains 10 to 25 percent less iron, zinc, protein, calcium, vitamin C, and other nutrients. In simple terms, you would have to eat eight oranges today to derive the same amount of Vitamin A as our grandparents would have gotten from one.
We can fool consumers into thinking the beautiful food we buy at the grocery store is the same or better than our grandparents bought, but we can’t food our bodies regarding its nutritional content. When we're done eating our meals, we’re still hungry. So we try to quell our appetites by indulging in something sugary, fatty, and oh, so good tasting. This is like trying to jazz up a boring life by snorting cocaine—fun in the short run, not so good for the body in the long run. And for dual career parents who are too dead-tired from working full-time jobs and taking care of kids to even think about sex or exercise, indulging in something sweet may be the last remaining bastion of pleasure.
Why the decline in nutrients?
There are three reasons why our diets are calorie dense and nutrient poor.
First, modern agricultural methods have stripped increasing amounts of nutrients from the soil. We forget, sometimes, that the nutrient value of the food we grow depends on the nutrient levels of the soil in which they are grown. As author Jo Robinson wrote in the New York Times:
“Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers.”
“I’ve interviewed U.S.D.A. plant breeders who have spent a decade or more developing a new variety of pear or carrot without once measuring its nutritional content. We can’t increase the health benefits of our produce if we don’t know which nutrients it contains. Ultimately, we need more than an admonition to eat a greater quantity of fruits and vegetables: we need more fruits and vegetables that have the nutrients we require for optimum health.”
A more extreme way of putting this is that the food we eat has about the same nutritional value and tastiness as the packaging it’s wrapped in. We eat and eat and eat, and yet our bodies are not satisfied.
Second, our diets contain more processed foods and fewer fresh foods than is good for us. Processed food generally contains less fiber, fewer micronutrients, and fewer phytochemicals that protect against heart disease and diabetes, according to recent studies. As a simple example, apples are chock full of fiber and micronutrients. When they are processed into applesauce, fiber and micronutrients are lost, and sugars are usually added. When they are processed even further into apple juice, almost all the fiber is lost, leaving behind a micronutrient-poor liquid that may contain as much sugar as soda.
Third, Americans want all produce to be available all the time, but nature has seasons. We are a big country, and the distances that food travel from farm to grocery are much larger than in Europe. We think nothing of buying in New York oranges that were grown in Florida or tomatoes that were grown in California. When it’s off-season here, we expect our fruits and vegetables to be imported from the southern hemisphere.
But I Buy Organic, So I’m Safe, Right?
Not so much. Researchers at Stanford University evaluated nearly 250 studies that compared the nutrients in organic and conventionally-grown foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, poultry, meat, and eggs), as well as the health outcomes of eating these foods. They found very little difference in nutritional content, aside from a higher omega-3 fatty acid content in organic milk and chicken. But organic foods had 30% lower pesticide residues than conventional foods. Organic chicken and pork were also about a third less likely to contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria than conventionally raised chicken and pork.
Will the European Union Rescue Our Food Supply?
Americans who travel in Europe typically come home asking the following question: Why does the food in Europe taste so much better than the food here?
The quick answer is this: Because of the way European food is grown and prepared.
Negotiations are now taking place for a $100 billion trade agreement, and food is a substantial portion of that trade. The problem is that Europe is reluctant to import foods from the US. According to Heidi Moore of the leading British newspaper, The Guardian
The EU looks down on American food safety and production practices, and with good reason. American meat production is heavily reliant on chemicals, from hormones to chlorine-bleach baths, and European officials and consumers largely reject these treatments and standards…
…the EU has enough clout to finally convince the US government to clean up America’s food supply, long given over to factory farming and the economic demands of agribusiness. If America wants to export more beef, chicken and crops to the European Union, it will have to make better products. The EU won’t stand for the ones we’re peddling now.
Why is the American food supply in this sorry state? Again, according to The Guardian
The US food supply lacks variety: only a few crops dominate and major companies that determine the extent and quality of the food supply – and they often prefer genetically modified seeds, bred to withstand herbicides but not fully tested in their long-term effect on human health…three big companies now control more than half of the global seed market.
So when it comes to taste and nutrition, the meat, dairy, and produce we buy in our grocery stores pale in comparison to what you can get in Europe. Then there is the issue of how we prepare our foods. It is not unusual for Americans to boil their vegetables until every bit of nutrition of gone, and then to try to make up in quantity what is missing in quality. Sort of like Woody Allen’s joke about the guy who complains that the food at a certain restaurant is terrible—and the portions are so small.
What You Can Do to Make Food Nutritious and Put the Pleasure Back in Eating
At this point, you may be wondering whether the only way to eat tasty, nutritious food is to move abroad or grow your own. But, of course, most of us have neither the time to tend gardens full of vegetables grown from heirloom seeds, nor the income no time to spend our summers in Tuscany. So here is some practical advice.
1. Cook with herbs and quality oils. Don’t want to eat broccoli because it’s tasteless and boring, so you load your plate with mashed potatoes instead? Try this: Steam your broccoli until it’s bright green and tender but still chewy, then sprinkle it lightly with high quality olive oil, thyme, oregano and a little sea salt. The robust combination of the vegetable flavor, olive oil, and spices with flood your senses with a riot of flavor and wonderful smells.
And the added bonus is that herbs and spices spike the nutrient content of foods. They are typically chock full of antioxidants that fight damage caused by free radicals. They also contain protective phytochemicals that are anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial. This site gives terrific advice on which herbs spices will transform “boring vegetables” into feasts for the senses.
2. Buy organic to reduce your pesticide load. The research clearly shows that organic foods are better on this measure than conventionally-grown foods. And organic meats and dairy come from animals that are raised humanely, as opposed to the horrors of factory-farming. Keep in mind that an animal deprived of nutritious food, sunshine, and enough room to move around with others of their kind is an animal that is full of stress hormones and whose immune systems are so overburdened that they require antibiotics just to stay well.
3. Oppose genetically modified foods. According to of the University of Michigan,
In nearly 50 countries around the world, including Australia, Japan, and all countries in the European Union, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GM food.
One of our major trade allies, the European Union, won’t import our food if we allow GMOs into our food supply. From an economic viewpoint, it makes little sense to take this path.
From a nutritional viewpoint, the risk/reward ratio of GMO foods seems to be weighing in more heavily on the risk side. The promise of GMO foods was that they would be engineered to be more nutrient dense. Yet a recent report by De Dell Seed Company (Canada's only non-GMO corn seed company) found many nutritional deficiencies in GMO corn. Compared to non-GMO corn, GMO corn contained 437 times less calcium, 56 times less magnesium, and 7 times less manganese. GMO corn also contained 13 ppm of glyphosate. The EPA considers anything over 0.7 ppm as “unsafe”; non-GMO corn contains no glyphosate.
4. Remind yourself that eating should be a pleasure. Just don’t restrict yourself to the over-the-top, in-your-face, extreme-rush-of-pleasure that comes from sugar mixed with fat.
Copyright Denise Dellarosa Cummins, PhD June 14, 2013
Dr. Cummins is the author of Good Thinking (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science.