If a Fly Won't Land on it, is it Food?

Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and many others have given sustainable foodies reason after reason to advocate for reform of the food system and local food in the US. Their work is incredibly well-researched and poignantly written. I stumbled upon another good reason to support food system reform from a lesser known source a few weekends ago. I was at the Bancroft, Wisconsin, VFW for a family reunion listening to my dad and his cousins reminisce about their Uncle Ralph. Ralph was a dairy farmer in central Wisconsin who was rather fond of asking, “If a fly won’t land on it, why would I want to eat it?” Good question! The fact that I don’t have a good answer means that the effort it takes to eat real, local, and sustainable food is well worth it.

When Ralph asked that question, he was usually talking about margarine. Since he was a dairy farmer, I don’t expect the popularity of margarine did much for him financially. But the fact that he lived to be more than 90 years old suggests that he instinctively knew a few things about real food.

Margarine - which I don’t consider to be food - truly epitomizes the industrial food system. Each of its ingredients is several steps away from being actual food. Margarine is a tub full of chemicals meant to trick the eater into thinking it's food. There are artificial colors, flavors, and emulsifiers (for the mouth feel and shelf life). The most famous of the emulsifiers is partially hydrogenated oil, or trans fat, which has consistently been linked to cancer and heart disease.

Margarine is a good example of the processed products that fill most grocery stores. In many ways, it was the first industrial “food.” Walking through the middle parts of the grocery store, processed food-like substances fill the thousands of boxes lining the shelves. Almost all have the same kinds of artificial flavors, colors, stabilizers, and emulsifiers as margarine, especially the trans fats (or their less vilified cousins mono- and di-glycerides). Most of these products have shelf lives that are much longer than the real foods they simulate. To make this possible, the processers take out the nutrients and flavors naturally found in the food (the things that make food rot or get stale) and replace them with artificial “enrichments." Now chock-full of additives, food-like products are close enough for most consumers and can sit waiting to be sold for an indefinite period. This process of replacing the natural with the synthetic is why flies don’t want to land on margarine. Everything worth eating has systematically been removed from margarine and processed edibles - even flies don’t recognize it as food.

Processed food replacements try to mimic the taste, nutrition, and textures of real food, but can’t. Nature still does a better job than the scientists who try to outsmart it. And there’s a whole world of local food that still recognizes its natural deliciousness. Many farmers, artisans, and producers create great food outside of the industrial system. Flies (and dogs and foxes and squirrels) want to nibble on that local butter, bread, or chicken; these real foods are full of the substances that sustain life and satisfy the tongue. Local and artisan foods have flavor that is unparalleled in processed food replacements, and I’m willing to bet they’re better for you, too. Uncle Ralph took some food cues from the animal world, and he ate tasty real food for almost 100 years. Local foods don’t come with shiny art on the package or prizes inside because they don't need to. When the food is that good, it's its own prize.