Update Appended: Aug. 25, 2010
Looking for a quick way to feel lousy about yourself? Then forget the idea of a healthy diet and just eat what your body wants you to eat. Your body wants meat; your body wants fat; your body wants salt and sugar. Your body will put up with fruits and vegetables if it must, but only after all the meat, fat, salt and sugar are gone. And as for the question of where your food comes from whether it's locally grown, sustainably raised, grass-fed, free range or pesticide-free? Your body doesn't give a hoot.
But you and your body aren't the only ones with a stake in this game. Your doctor has opinions about what you should eat. So does your family. And so too do the food purists who lately seem to be everywhere, insisting that everything that crosses your lips be raised and harvested and brought to market in just the right way. If you find this tiresome even intrusive you're not alone. "It's food, man. It's identity," says James McWilliams, a professor of environmental history at Texas State University. "We encourage people to eat sensibly and virtuously, and then we set this incredibly high bar for how they do it."
The ideal as we're reminded and reminded and reminded is to go organic, to trade processed foods for fresh foods and the supermarket for the farmers' market. Organic foods of all kinds currently represent only about 3% of the total American market, according to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but it's a sector we all should be supporting more.
That sounds like a great idea, but we'll pay a price for it. Organic fruits and vegetables cost 13¢ to 36¢ per lb. more than ordinary produce, though prices fluctuate depending on the particular food and region of the country. Milk certified as hormone- and antibiotic-free costs $6 per gal. on average, compared with $3.50 for ordinary grocery-store milk.
What's more, while grass-fed beef is lower in fat, and milk without chemicals is clearly a good idea, it's less obvious that organic fruits and vegetables have a nutritional edge to speak of. A 2009 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition led to a firestorm in the food world. It found no difference between organic and conventional produce with regard to all but three of the vitamins and other food components studied, and conventional produce actually squeaked past organic for one of those three.
"We draw these bright lines between organic and conventional food," says McWilliams. "But science doesn't draw those lines. They crisscross, and you have people on both sides of the argument cherry-picking their data." For consumers trying to stay healthy and feed their families and do both on budgets that have become tighter than ever the ideological back-and-forth does no good at all. What's needed are not arguments but answers.
The Wages of Eating
The biggest reason not to ignore the food purists is that in a lot of ways they're right. Our diet is indeed killing us, and it's killing the planet too. Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta released a study revealing that nearly 27% of Americans are now considered obese (that is, more than 20% above their ideal weight), and in nine states, the obesity rate tops 30%. We eat way too much meat up to 220 lb. per year for every man, woman and child in the U.S. and only 14% of us consume our recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Our processed food is dense with salt and swimming in high-fructose corn syrup, two flavors we can't resist. Currently, enough food is manufactured in the U.S. for every American to consume 3,800 calories per day we need only 2,350 in a healthy diet and while some of that gets thrown away, most is gobbled up long before it can go stale on the shelves.
Next Farm vs. Supermarket