This post is part of a series about what it means to grow great food. This is some of my thoughts on how the food we eat impact human health.
Chemical/toxin exposure. In the normal food system, we get exposed to lots of things that are potentially problematic to human health. Chemicals like pesticides or growth hormones come immediately to mind, but there are plenty of other things in our food supply that we'd prefer to keep out of our bodies. Yes, these and others are generally considered ‘mostly’ safe, but there are things that are carcinogenic or have other health effects. We certainly do what we can to reduce our exposure. At our farm, we don't use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. We don't treat any of our animals with any drugs, except for the very rare occasion when an animal does get sick and needs veterinary care.
Nutrient density. There is some fascinating recent research on nutrient density in our food (for an introduction, see these articles in the Scientific American, BBC, or Politico). Very briefly, there has been a significant decrease in the amount of nutrients (like iron, zinc, amino acids) in our food over the last few decades. The food generally still has plenty of calories in the form of carbs and fats, but less of all the micronutrients that we need. So the average food is now a bit more like 'junk' food in that calories are more 'empty' of nutrients. Actually, this may be one of the contributors to rising global obesity rates, that our bodies are craving those nutrients and so push us to eat more food to find them.
And why is nutrient density decreasing? It looks like much of the blame is on plant and animal growth being supercharged by things like synthetic fertilizers in plants, higher CO2 levels from human caused emissions, lack of living soil (bacteria, fungi, nematodes and more) and confined feeding of high calorie diets for animals. We are making all of our foods grow as quickly as possible, and so they are packing on physical size and calories. But at the same time, they aren't able to produce or take up as much of all the other nutrients our bodies need. In the past, all of our foods grew in a more balanced fashion, not having been optimized only to get big quickly.
And what are the solutions? Small farms growing food in more old-fashioned ways is one way to help bring back nutrient-dense food. Healthy living soil, full of fungi, bacteria, worms and bugs, is one great way to start. Healthy soil has incredible abilities to make nutrients available to the plants growing in them. We grow healthy soil by avoiding chemicals, reducing tillage, adding compost, avoiding erosion, and more. By having healthy soil, our crops, whether that be fruits, vegetables, or grasses for the cattle, are all healthier and with higher nutrient density. For animal nutrient density, our cattle don't spend the last months of their lives gorging on corn and other grains (empty calories that fatten them up). Instead they finish on grass and other native plants, which gives them a natural and balanced diet for their entire lifetime.
Eating a balanced diet of whole foods. Many of the frozen, boxed, and canned foods at the store are simply loaded with heavily processed ingredients like high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated fats, and known as 'ultra processed' foods.
Ultra processed foods are those that are broken down and separated into their component chemical parts before being recombined into other products. For an example, let's look at processing an orange. Peeling it and eating it gives your body the whole thing, including all the fibrous bits that hold everything together. Then imagine juicing that orange and only drinking the juice. Think about that pile of pulp left behind, that won't reach your stomach. Finally, what if we separated out the sugars from that orange juice, and consumed only this sugar? We'd remove all sorts of nutrients and complex carbohydrates. This is what is very often done across the food industry - break them down into component parts, and then only use some of those parts in the foods we eat each day.
Processing food isn't bad in and of itself, as this is what all cooking does. Rather, the problem is removing things like nutrients, fiber, complex carbohydrates and fats. Research has shown that eating too much heavily processed food is bad for you (search 'ultra processed foods' to read articles like this one). We find chips and sugary cereals tasty, inexpensive and convenient, but there is a price to pay in higher levels of obesity, chronic disease, and shorter lives.
We should be eating more 'whole' foods and those that are less processed. Include more whole wheat bread and brown rice (keeps the bran and fiber found on the outer part of the seeds). Eating home-cooked foods means knowing exactly what you are eating, that the only transformation is what happens in your kitchen, and the entire foods make it into the final dish. And what better way than to start with fresh farm foods? Whether you get them from our farm or elsewhere, all of us should be trying to eat well, and starting with great ingredients leads to great tasting food. We're even making more meals ready-to-eat in our kitchen, and cooking the same ways that you would at home, just on a bit bigger scale.