Sometimes it’s hard to see what’s important. The focus of the food-producing industry is to sell product. National agencies have almost exclusively been focusing on safety. Almost no one has been interested in nourishment!
Ever since our ancestors took up farming, thousands of years ago, we have preferred to cultivate sweeter varieties of crops with better yields and, as a result, very gradually, the nutrient value has been slipping. This process accelerated after WW2, when the immediate challenge was to make sure everyone had enough to eat. The entire focus, understandably, was to produce food cheaply. It was assumed that it if people had enough to eat that they would be properly nourished and, at that time it was probably true. Over the years, as processors have got better and better at producing more food for less cost, the quality of the food, especially in terms of nutrients, has been falling. Now we find that many of our common foods, even ones we consider healthy, have but a fraction of the nutrients they once contained and hardly any phytonutrients.
The drive for ever cheaper food has resulted in widespread intensification and over use of chemicals. In particular, the use of pesticides to control disease and eradicate insects and fungi has depleted micro-organisms in the soil and, as a consequence, reduced the nutrient value of the crops grown on it.
Believe it or not, it is relatively easy to be malnourished in “developed” countries. We have been seduced by fast, convenient food, from which all goodness has been banished! The result is that we eat too much but often fail to consume an adequate amount and range of the nutrients that our bodies need for long term good health. Nutrition advice from Government agencies has been deeply flawed or misleading and a relaxed attitude to marketing has resulted in us making unhealthy choices, with life-long bad habits being formed early. We may be living longer than ever before, thanks to medical advances, but we have also been visited by a plague of chronic diseases, almost all of which are caused by our poor diet and stressful lifestyle. In Ireland, our health service, like most health services across the globe, is stressed to breaking point
Somewhere along the way we forgot that the main purpose of food is not to fill our stomachs, but to provide nourishment for our bodies. Perhaps it’s time to change tack! Perhaps we should devise a system where Coke Zero scores a zero and avocados get a 10? Where Coco Pops get a 1 and Organic Porridge gets an 8. I know that this is over-simplified and that nutrition is a complex affair, but I would much prefer to see an indication of the nutritional value of a meal on a menu than the number of calories!
Fortunately for us there is still an abundance of great foods with excellent nutrition. There are farmers and growers who have taken the organic route and many others who use chemicals sparingly. All across Ireland and the world, there are people making wonderful food who take care to give their customers great tasting and healthy products, but for the most part these are small scale operations that are guided by the commitment of their owners. Big business, however, tends to focus elsewhere.
Imagine if the might of the food producing industry was focused on nutrition; if companies engaged in the science of genetic engineering worked on increasing the nutrient value of crops, rather than how to make them resistant to Roundup! Imagine if processors turned their efforts to preserving as much of the goodness of the ingredients of the food as possible, instead of how to make it last 10 months on a supermarket shelf!
What consumer knows which of the range of apple varieties on display in a shop holds the most nutrients? Why is information like this not freely available from a reputable, independent source? State agencies seem determined, for example, to curtail the sale of raw milk in order to avoid a miniscule risk to the consumer, instead of focusing on the best and safest way to bring such a beneficial food to more people.
Of course food safety is important and good food must be affordable and accessible to everyone. But if the forces that influence the production and sale of our food could bring the issue of nutrition back to the fore in all their activities, the benefits could be profound indeed.
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