When it comes to reducing our global footprint and avoiding corporations that we disapprove of, one of the most encouraging trends is that of DIY, or the culture of makers, to use a more hip parlance. This can involve anything from converting your car to run on biodiesel to knitting a scarf. For projects that require specialized tools and equipment, there are hundreds of spaces popping up worldwide where you can drop in and work on your thing. You may not be likely to need access to a 3D printer or laser cutter anytime soon, but chances are that you engage in some kind of creative activity (even the White House hosted a Maker Faire in 2014). Many consider the trend to be a very human response to the loss of connection to the world around us and also the loss of control over the nature and origin of the things we use. This lack of connection and control has largely come about as a result of the rise of mass production and the industrialization of our world. I think one of the reasons so many people enjoyed reading The Martian was that the central character, Mark Watney, was a very creative maker. And whether you’re trapped on Mars or on Earth the same truth applies – every little step taken towards independence can be highly rewarding and empowering.
Of the many varieties of making, probably the most timeless and accessible are those that provide for our most basic human need: food. This could entail the artisan pursuits of making your own bread, cheese, wine, beer, etc., or the very everyday act of simply preparing a meal from fresh ingredients. You might say that we’ve always prepared food and it’s nothing special, but the reality is that a large portion of society lost its connection to food, particularly in the decades following WWII. The 1950s brought convenience food to the world. Advances in food processing, together with strategies adapted from the military, enabled the wonders of frozen food and mass-produced shelf-stable edibles. This convenience was hailed as a wonderful way to free up time for the average person, allowing them (when they came home from their job at the food processing plant ) to fully enjoy the other marvel that took hold in the fifties – and one of one of the most powerful drugs known to humankind – the television.
Processed Food. Typically more energy goes into processing food than is required to grow it in the first place. In some cases, such as a frozen food container, more calories can go into making the container than is contained in the food itself.
Advertising right up to the present day emphasizes how much time the wonderful conveniences of modern life will save us, allowing us to get on with our real lives. A busy parent doesn’t have time to be faffing around with food when they could simply slip a plastic container into the microwave and then settle down with the kids for some quality time in front of the TV, catching up on ads about more ways they can save time. Ads showing buffoons cutting their fingers or making gigantic messes trying to do everyday activities – don’t be a sucker, buy this instead! After a generation, we were in danger of growing up with no practical skills at all – our hard-earned cash going to corporations who mass produce the things that we can no longer make ourselves.
The point is that we’ve started to wake up to this loss of power and control. And we’re increasingly coming to the realization that it’s actually more fun and rewarding to do some things ourselves than to have them done for us. The connection to nature that comes about through simple activities such as growing or cooking food can be extremely restorative, sometimes helping people to turn their lives around. For example, gardening programs in San Quentin State Prison and around the Bay Area (operated by Planting Justice and the Insight Garden program) have met with remarkable success, while the Delancey Street Foundation’s restaurant in San Francisco provides a fresh start for former convicts and drug addicts.
On a personal health level, there’s no doubt that the increased prevalence of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer owe a lot to our switch from fresh ingredients to processed food. Recently the WHO released data showing that regular consumption of processed meats (i.e. meat processed in ways that extend its shelf life, such as adding preservatives) significantly increases the likelihood of developing colorectal cancer. And even that’s a fairly minor development compared to some of the travesties that the food industry has been responsible for over the last few decades, from trans fats to high-fructose corn syrup. Things that you would never consider or just don’t need when cooking at home are commonplace in the food industry: stabilizers, preservatives, artificial colors, etc. It should also come as no surprise that the food industry is very focused on getting consumers to eat or drink as much of their product as possible. Michal Moss, in his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, charts the lengths to which the food industry has gone to increase sales, overcoming “sensory-specific satiety” (the temporary decline in pleasure derived from consuming any particular food) by systematically tweaking and testing their product formulations. Extensive corporate research into what addicts us to food has led to the discovery that avoiding any one predominant flavor will encourage more consumption (Moss gives the examples of Doritos and Coke), and also the importance of formulating food to achieve an optimum trifecta of salt, sugar, and fat.
Besides the health benefits, preparing our own food gives us much more control over the social and environmental cost of what we consume. And this is true of the maker movement in general – it’s about sustainability as much as independence. It’s pretty well understood by now that convenience and fast food often carries a high cost to the planet and to society. The widespread use of palm oil as an ingredient is a good example – I’ll be brief for the benefit of those suffering from palm oil fatigue. In order to create the desired “mouthfeel” (an unsettling phrase in itself), food processors used to use large volumes of partially hydrogenated oil. When the trans fat generated during hydrogenation was found to be a leading cause of heart disease the companies had to change tack, switching to palm oil, which is solid at room temperature (and cheap). The high demand for palm oil has resulted in deforestation and burning of peatlands on a massive scale. This situation was both unfortunate (massive understatement) and avoidable – palm oil itself is a very high yielding crop and if grown sustainably can be perfectly fine – it was the sudden increase in demand and lack of supply-chain responsibility that created the problem. Preparing food at home circumvents many of the problems that result from high-volume centralized food processing. For example, at home it’s very unlikely that you’d choose to use partially hydrogenated oil and likewise it’s easy to avoid ingredients that you’re not comfortable with, such as palm oil. You also save a lot of energy – in most cases it takes more energy to process food than it does to grow it in the first place – and it’s also cheaper to cook your own food. Here are a few of the other things we don’t have to worry about if we prepare our own food:
- High volume demand for certain ingredients from single suppliers that results in unsustainable or inhumane conditions. You can chose to buy eggs from a small local farm but Giant Corp can’t do that because they need so many eggs – they will choose the cheapest bulk producer that matches their needs.
- Chemical preservation of food. Preservation rarely maintains the food’s nutritional content – even just the process of reheating pre-cooked food destroys many of the vitamins. And the preservatives themselves (TBHQ, anyone?) are often suspect.
- Artificial colors, “flavor enhancers”, and other ingredients that would be more at home in a chemical plant.
- Transportation and refrigeration of your food once you prepare it.
- Packaging of the food into single-use plastic containers, printing of labels, etc.
- A large portion of your food budget going to advertising or political campaigns rather than to farmers.
You have to have noticed the rise of the food bar over the last decade – these bars occupy an entire aisle in some supermarkets, ranging from traditional granola / cereal bars to newer energy bars that many use as meal replacements. I’ve nothing in particular against granola or energy bars – I’m just using them as an example of a processed food that most of us eat these days. It would be too easy to show that a dinner made at home from locally-sourced fresh ingredients is better socially and environmentally than food bought from a fast food joint or a frozen meal in a plastic tray – energy bars are a little more of a challenge because they’re not all bad. And yet, now that I know how to make them, the advantages on almost every level are so apparent that I’m rarely going to buy them again. In Part Two, I’m going to take a look at a few of these bars, discuss some of the reasons for making them yourself, and finally describe how to make some healthy and sustainable versions at home. Happy Thanksgiving!The future of food? Willy Wonka presents a pill to replace a meal, while Woody Allen tackles a troublesome pudding.