Sorry, Jensen Ackles fans. This post probably ain’t what you were looking for. ‘)
Okay, so I went to a “natural” food store yesterday. You know, one of those little shops at the end of a strip-mall somewhere, with staff who reek of patchouli, customers who drive really old diesel Saabs and carry canvas bags, lots of peace signs and rainbows and other leftist paraphernalia hanging about, etc. Yeah. One of those places.
Actually, I’m pretty down with the leftists. I mean, I embrace most of the Left’s social ideals. Where we part ways is that I don’t want to be taxed to support these social ideals. I believe that you should be free to do whatever the hell it is you would like to do. Just, please, don’t ask me to pay for it.
Anyway, my libertarian views are not really important at this juncture. I just wanted to stick them in there briefly. Back to the hippie store. So, S4 and I went there looking for some whole-wheat pastry flour, because it is unavailable at any but the most boutiquey of boutique shops, apparently; we also thought it would be fun to look around and see what sort of other scrummy food choices we might be missing by shopping at the Really Big grocery store. We found the organic chocolate straightaway, which was nice. Then we found shelf after shelf loaded with [slightly dusty] boxes, packets, packages and bottles of other organic and/or “natural” products. There was hardly a drop of high fructose corn syrup or autolyzed yeast protein to be found. Huzzah!
And then, it hit me. From nowhere came this epiphany that landed on my head literally in the middle of the store, right between the ginseng extract and the soy-veggie chips. And that was this:
There are hardly any “natural” foods here in this “natural foods” store.
See, when I think “natural” foods, I think of raw vegetables. I think of brown eggs. I think of raw milk and raw honey. I think free-range meats. I think of artisan breads made in small batches, or grains grown without a lot of chemical crap thrown on (or in) them. In short, I think of foods that can be recognized from whence they came.
Looking around, there was nary a thing that could be recognized from whence it came. Well, there were a couple of sad bunches of organic bananas. And there was a loaf of bread made with spelt flour. (I did not buy the bread, but I did buy some spelt flour.) But really, truly, browsing this “natural foods store” was one of the most unnatural experiences I’ve ever had.
Most everything in this store was some sort of supplement, extract, fiber-bar, protein powder, or capsule. I had to read the ingredients on pretty much every product to figure out just what, exactly, I was looking at. I can’t imagine how opening a vacuum-sealed pouch and emptying it- nay, even if into a glass of fresh, filtered spring water- would give one a satisfying gastronomical experience, let alone a feeling that one was ingesting something natural. I, the Purveyor of the Free Range Organic GrassFed Beef, felt quite out of my element. Still, we shopped on.
S4 and I did NOT find any whole wheat pastry flour, organic or no; a clerk said it could be ordered, but I wasn’t sure if we would trek back anytime soon and didn’t want her to go through the trouble. We did score ourselves some quinoa, the spelt flour, and some french lentils. Again with the huzzahs.
But later, when we got home and I pulled those treasures out of our canvas bag (<– !!) and set them on the counter, it occurred to me that all three of my purchases were in ridiculous plastic pouches that were totally not recyclable. That seemed like such an oxymoron to me. One of the primary aspects of buying organic and “natural” foods is that you are reducing your demand for resources, and this was clearly not the case. In fact, we probably increased our demand. The flour I usually buy comes in a paper sack, and I can buy quinoa in the regular grocery that’s packed in a cardboard box. I thought about all the stuff we had browsed over in the “natural” foods store, and realized that most of it was prepackaged – and most of the packaging was vicious: unrecyclable foil or plastic or a combination thereof. True, most of the ingredients were organic, and many were vegetarian, or even vegan. Great. Hooray. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s going to take 10000 years for that pouch of non-GMO tempeh to degrade into something useful.
I think we’ve been conditioned to believe that food should be insanely cheap and available incessantly. And along with that conditioning, we’ve also been conditioned to ignore the reality that, if you want it cheap and you want it now, you’re going to have to sacrifice a bit on the quality. That’s the niche that conventional, industrial food fills. Fortunately, people are starting to demand more quality in their food, which has fueled the enormous growth in the organics sector over the past several years. Unfortunately, however, people haven’t been willing to budge on the cheap and now part. So we’re seeing more “organics” and more “natural” foods entering the retail grocery landscape, but they’re just as over-processed and over-packaged as their conventional competitors so they can survive the harsh realities of retail food: mass production, long-distance transportation, storage, and shelf-life.
Buying organics, and buying less-processed or unprocessed foodstuffs, is a great and noble (and healthy) thing to do, in my not-so-humble opinion. Buying “natural” or “organic” copycats of industrial food (i.e. “Veganaise”, “veggie slices” (cheese substitute), or organic extruded cereals) is NOT natural, nor is it necessarily healthy. And buying foods that are so exotic that they require space-grade packaging to keep fresh while they get from there to here is NOT natural, nor is it responsible. I’m happy for you that your miso paste is in a convenient tube, but will it be convenient seventeen generations from now when it’s still hanging out in a landfill somewhere?
I don’t think it makes a difference if you’re a vegan, a carnivore, a chocolatarian, or a junk-food junkie. We Westerners all* eat foods that involve intensive industrial interference to produce. Our diets have millions and millions of food miles on them. Our foods have millions and millions of pounds of wasteful packaging on them. And for those of us who believe that eating organic, low-impact foods is important for our own health as well as for stewardship of the planet, we need to keep in mind that a “natural” food is one that grows nearby, or one that is made from things that grow nearby, not just one grown without chemicals. The industrialization of food – organic or conventional notwithstanding – is not a sustainable way of eating.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make a pot of french lentils. And some spelt bread to go with.
*I’m sure there are exceptions to every rule.