Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Non-Food Food?

photo source: www.vice.com

A few days ago I was looking up statistics on eating disorder prevalence among males, and through a series of web links I stumbled upon a link to a blog called Mostly Harmless by a youngish male engineer named Rob Rhinehart. The blog is fairly new, with just five posts in total. And three of these five posts is about how he's cut food mostly out of his diet. That's right. According to Rhinehart's definition, his diet only includes food on special occasions or when he is really craving a particular food, but for the most part his diet consists of a liquid concoction he calls Soylent (and no, it is not made out of people like in the movie Soylent Greenhe should really consider finding an alternate name) that consists of a carefully calculated combination of vitamins, minerals, macronutrients, probiotics, and other substances (in powder form) mixed with water. He claims that by consuming this drink in place of food, he saves time and money, and looks and feels healthier. Rhinehart is also in the process of trying to recruit others to follow a Soylent diet, apparently in pursuit of the goal of turning his personal body project into a scientific experiment and to find out if other people benefit from the diet in the same way that he feels he has. 

There are a lot of things going on here. Rhinehart is trying to improve his health, and make nourishing himself cheaper and more time efficient. And those are all things that I understand. But since he's an engineer and not a medical professional or registered dietitian, I'm skeptical of his ability to create a purely chemical mixture that can provide him with all of the nutritional benefits of a "regular" balanced diet involving food. And even if he was a medical professional or an RD, it's still possible that that important diet components would be overlooked because there are soooooo many nutrients and other substances to consider, and more information is being discovered about them all the time. So although I think what he's doing is interesting, and it seems like he's working really hard to make Soylent as nutritionally complete as possible, I don't think I'd be willing to do what he's doing because I'd be worried about deficiencies and toxicities. Plus, cooking and eating food is way too enjoyable for me to want to give up.

Which brings me to something (potentially) troubling I was thinking about while I was reading this article: why does Rhinehart make such a point of referring to his diet as food-free and referring to Soylent as a non-food? Because I think I do consider it a food—a powdered chemical-based food, a synthetic food, a not very "natural"-seeming food, but a food nonetheless. So why doesn't Rhinehart think so? And whether or not Soylent is a food or a non-food, and even assuming that he will be able to maintain good health while subsisting on it almost exclusively, why do I feel such an aversion to it?

I think that part of the answer to this question is the eating disorder factor—I read and write about eating disorders all the time because I'm researching anorexia for my thesis, and so I'm kind of always on the lookout for things that apply to that topic, and I always cringe when I hear about the promotion of any sort of practice that seems to me to be eating disordered. And Rhinehart's blog/body project definitely falls into that category. But maybe more than that, I feel like even if a Soylent-only diet proves to be super healthy, delicious, time-efficient, and inexpensive, there's still something wrong with it to me. It seems so disconnected from what I think of as "good" food, and there's something kind of sad to me about chugging a glass of powder dissolved in water in place of every meal. It seems like it's losing touch with food, and by extension your body, culture, cooking practices, and a lot of traditions, social interactions, tastes, and smells. And that sounds kind of depressing. I think that sacrificing all of these things for efficiency and frugality and the power to perfectly control every aspect of my diet down to each microgram sounds like a pretty bad deal.

But on the other hand, Rhinehart does bring up some interesting things to think about, such as in the post "How I Stopped Eating Food" when he argues that "Food is the fossil fuel of human energy. It is an enormous market full of waste, regulation, and biased allocation with serious geo-political implications. And we're deeply dependent on it. In some countries people are dying of obesity, others starvation." In this way, Rhinehart positions himself (whether fairly or unfairly) as a food activist. It's true, the food system(s) in the U.S. and around the world have some major problems that need to be figured out. But I don't think that the answer to these problems should be to try to distance ourselves from food even more by consuming nothing but synthetic food and then calling it non-food in order to try to absolve ourselves of responsibility for the problems within the food system. It seems to me that (for the sake of the food system and our nation's health) what we actually need to do is work on being more connected with our food in it's unprocessed forms, even if that means opening ourselves up to difficult choices and questions, and even if it isn't always time efficient or perfectly controlled. 

P.S. You can read an interview with Rhinehart about his Soylent experiment at http://www.vice.com/read/rob-rhinehart-no-longer-requires-food

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


photo source: www.treehugger.com

Dumpster diving seems to have been coming up a lot recently in the discussions I’ve had regarding food activism. So I decided to watch the documentary Dive! by Jeremy Seifert.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with dumpster diving (or at least not in the food activism sense of the term), it refers to the practice of collecting food that is thrown out by supermarkets, restaurants, hotels, and other food retailers. Generally this food is thrown out because it is nearing or past the marked expiration date, it appears slightly flawed (such as bruised produce), to make room on the shelves for newer items, etc. In all of these cases, the food is usually fine to eat, but ends up getting tossed into the dumpster anyway, where it then actually does goes bad and/or is dumped into landfills. And all of that means that a lot of perfectly fine food gets wasted.

That’s where the dumpster divers come in: they “rescue” the food from the dumpsters before it goes bad or gets carted off to a landfill, and use it to feed themselves, their families and friends, and sometimes even donate it to homeless shelters. The documentary Dive! chronicles this practice from the perspective of Jeremy Seifert and other dumpster divers in the Los Angeles area, and seeks to impress upon the viewer the outrageousness of how much food is wasted in the U.S., and the implications and origins of this wastefulness.

Overall, I thought that this was a well-made, relatable, interesting documentary. I think it’s great that people are using food that would otherwise just be left to rot—it's like an industrialized agriculture version of gleaning fields! I also find it pretty maddening that even with the Good Samaritan Act in place, supermarkets and restaurants would rather throw away good food than give it to people who need it. And it made me feel good about how in my own refrigerator, I’m kind of obsessive about making sure everything gets used up or frozen before it goes bad (which has, I’ll admit, resulted in some eclectic meals). If I was a little bit less worried about getting in trouble for trespassing I would try dumpster diving; I’m not afraid of eating something that’s nearing or past it’s expiration date as long as it smells ok, I definitely don’t see a problem with  bruised or slightly wonky-looking fruits and vegetables, and my mom taught me long ago to just cut off the moldy parts of a block of cheese instead of throwing the whole thing away. So except for the being afraid of getting caught part (which, granted, is probably a pretty big part of the challenge/experience), I’m on board with dumpstering.

photo source:
But every once in a while there was something that bothered me about the way that some of the dumpster divers that Seifert interviewed talked about what they were doing. One interviewee in particular said something that made me scrunch my face: “This is a totally outside of the system way of living!”

photo source:
Ok, I understand what he’s saying. I think. I think he’s referring to the fact that he’s not paying for the food, and thus the money that he otherwise would be spending on food isn’t going towards supporting a capitalist system and/or a system of industrialized agriculture. And because of this, he feels like he’s kind of off the hook in terms of responsibility for the problems associated with the industrialized food and capitalist systems, even though he’s eating food sold by corporate grocery stores and produced by industrial agriculture. He feels like he beat the system, because he gets to reap most of the benefits of industrial agriculture while at the same being critical of it, avoiding financially supporting it, and maintaining a sense of cognitive concordance.  He gets to have his cake and eat it too, so to speak.

But the problem with this is that dumpster diving isn’t really “a totally outside of the system way of living.” It’s more like a way of operating on the margins of the system, and there are certainly some positive things to be said about that. But it’s not the same of being free of “the system” completely because dumpster diving still involves being dependent on "the system" in some way. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. And in fact, maybe in some ways it’s actually better—to help pick up after a flawed system seems more responsible than having nothing to do with the system at all, even if in doing so one becomes part of the system. So maybe "living outside of the system" isn't actually as useful of a goal as living on the margins of a flawed system and poking holes in it. And that's what dumpster diving, and this documentary, are trying to do.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Haymarket and the Boston Public Market: Friends or Foes?

Last week I went on a fieldtrip with my food activism class to Haymarket, an open-air produce market in downtown Boston that has been around for hundreds of years. One of the things we learned about and discussed as we toured (does that make us tourists then?) the area was the plans for a new indoor public market that will be opening up nearby. Unlike in the case of Haymarket, at which inexpensive, sometimes slightly “imperfect,” fell-off-the-back-of-the-truck fruits and vegetables are sold, Boston Public Market is being organized by a nonprofit and will feature local (meaning mostly from Massachusetts, but also from areas throughout other parts of New England), sustainanably-produced “fruits and vegetables, seafood, locally-ranched meats and poultry, New England cheeses and other dairy products, eggs, baked goods, fresh flowers, honey and maple syrup, pastas and sauces, artisan chocolates, other locally-crafted sweets, and a wide variety of prepared specialty items from across the region” (www.bostonpublicmarket.org).  There are also plans to further develop the area by building a new museum, apartment complex, or hotel in this “Market District.”

Many people, especially the current Haymarket venders, are worried that the opening of the Boston Public Market and the establishment of new infrastructure elements in the area will threaten Haymarket. And aside from the logistical concerns about things like the potential incompatibility of a loud market located right next to sleeping hotel guests or apartment dwellers, and the concern that Boston Public Market will draw business away from Haymarket, there definitely seems to be a sense of class and culture conflict—some Haymarket venders and customers seem to feel that their interests and way of life are getting stomped on by a cool new yuppy trend towards eating local, sustainably-produced artisan foods. And the city is completely on-board with it.

I personally do not shop at Haymarket. I’ve walked by it a few times, but never stopped to shop because the the goings-on there sometimes look and sound rather intimidating, and I was suspicious of the super low prices ($1 boxes of strawberries sound sketchy, right? And this is coming from me, an uber cheapskate.) Plus it isn’t located anywhere near to where I live, so it probably wouldn’t make sense for me to do regular shopping there. And yet I kind of feel as sense of solidarity with the Haymarket venders and customers who are worried about getting put out of business by the Boston Public Market and the new hotel, apartment building, or museum—and this is in spite of the fact that, as a consumer, I think that the Boston Public Market sounds awesome! I think that my sense of solidarity has to do with the fact that I tend to want to identify with the “underdogs” and because my lower-middle class self-identification makes me suspicious of causes that might give preference to the sale of artisan cheeses over the livlihoods of independent produce vendors that have been doing their thing in the area for a really long time. And I kind of feel like the concept of a “Market District,” although it sounds really exciting, might be kind of just appropriating (and making over) the Haymarket “brand” and cultural-historical capital at the cost of the real Haymarket’s viability. And that seems kind of unfair. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

"Forks Over Knives" and Some Thoughts on Protein

I have some confessions. I cut the fat off of grilled steaks and pork chops not to avoid it, but to savor it. I’ve eaten deep-fried cheesecake, and it was awesome. I like butter on my toast and cheese on anything. And I can’t imagine not eating eggs in some form or another—be it soft-boiled or baked into banana bread or something— at least several times a week.

image source: forksoverknives.com
But I eat a lot of other things too of course. In addition to the foods mentioned above, I also really like pretty much any type of green leafy vegetable if it’s been sautéed with a little garlic and olive oil, I love fresh fruit, I could probably eat guacamole every day for the rest of my life and not get tired of it, and I think that roasted sweet potatoes are delicious. And I definitely don’t eat fried cheesecake or steak fat very often, and probably wouldn’t even if they were always available. Well, that might not be true, maybe I would if they were always available. But they aren’t, so I don’t. Still, the point is that I eat things that aren’t great for me and I enjoy them. But it’s more often that I eat nutrient-dense,  fresh or minimally processed foods, and I feel that overall I have a pretty good diet and a pretty good awareness of what a healthy diet is. However I started to question that feeling a bit when I watched Forks Over Knives.

As I watched Forks Over Knives, a documentary by Lee Fulkerson about the health benefits of eating whole-food, plant-based diet, I was thinking a lot about my diet and to what extend it does or doesn’t resemble the type of diet that the experts in the documentary recommended. To very briefly summarize, the documentary focuses on interviews with T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D. and Caldwell B. Esselstyn, M.D.. Campbell (a nutrition researcher) and Esselstyn (a surgeon), with supporting interviews from doctors, researchers, food policy makers, and patients/converts to the plant-based whole food, low-protein diets, make a convincing argument for the health benefits of this diet (for more information about who was part of the documentary, click here). They claim that following this diet is not only a great way of preventing disease and feeling happier, healthier, and more energetic, but that it also is an effective way of actually curing/reversing diseases like diabetes and heart disease, and possibly even cancer. They even document people who have these types of diseases and stop taking all of the medicine that they’ve been prescribed (like blood pressure lowering medications, insulin, etc.) and instead treat their diseases by switching completely to a plant-based, whole food, low-protein diet.

I have to say, Forks Over Knives had me feeling convinced. Campbell and Esselstyn seemed to be pretty good authorities on health and nutrition—they’re professionals who have done a lot of research on these topics, they did a good job of explaining the research, they had a lot of “real people” examples, etc.  And since I’m not a nutrition expert (at least not yet!) I didn’t really have any counterpoints to their argument.

Now, after finishing the documentary and having time to reflect on it, I think I’m a little more skeptical about their “food as medicine” approach to treating chronic diseases—I believe in the importance of nutrition, but I for one would not be willing to try to cure myself of something like cancer with food alone. So I kind of don’t know what to say about that. But I actually think that one of the most interesting topics covered in the documentary, and which Campbell and Esselstyn focus on in relation to disease prevention, was that of protein.

Because the diet they advocate is low-protein, Campbell and Esselstyn discussed that I would call a sort of mythology surrounding protein among Americans: we think it’ll make us stronger, faster, smarter, more attractive, and just overall better. We tend to think that it’s something that you can practically never have too much of. That it is a valuable ingredient in food while grains and other plant-based foods are “fillers.” It’s tied up with ideas about masculinity, personal value, tradition, plentiful resources, etc. And because of this, consuming protein is just as much of a symbol/performance/status marker as it is a nutritional choice. So it makes sense to me that people are overdoing protein, and that that could have negative health consequences.

I’m not normally into keeping close track of my dietary intake, but I’m currently in the middle of a project in my nutrition class in which I have to keep track of everything I eat for three days and then assess my diet. My first day, I exceeded my daily recommended intake of protein by 75%! And it wasn’t like I ate a giant steak or something—I got my protein that day through things like cheese, milk, eggs, a turkey sandwich, etc. So whether or not the low-protein, plant-based diet proposed by Campbell and Esselstyn is as awesome and effective as they make it sound, I do think that a lot of people in the U.S.  (myself included, apparently) have a protein overconsumption problem, and would likely benefit from cutting back on it.  But making that change won’t be easy because not only are protein-rich foods pretty abundant and accessible in the U.S., they’re also really wrapped up in socio-cultural values, self-identification, and the food-mythology I mentioned earlier. And it’s really hard (and possibly not even ethical?) to tell people that their socio-cultural values, self-identification, and mythologies are flawed. But on the other hand, since protein overconsumption is responsible for quite a few environmental and health problems, maybe it's worth trying to figure out some way that the socio-cultural values, self-identification, and mythologies surrounding protein could be re-imagined.

P.S. I was going to include a link to a post titled "One Chicken Breast, Six Eggs, Two Dinners for Four" on a recipe blog called Nothing But Delicious that I thought summed up pretty well my view of meat consumption—that it should be savored, not wasted, used sparingly, etc., and that that we should be more mindful of where our food comes from and how we feel about it. Unfortunately that post seems to have been removed from the blog in the last couple of days, which is kind of weird considering it wasn't exactly controversial...? If the post reappears or I find out what happened to it, I'll include it in an upcoming post.