A Commodity-Based Diet

A few months ago Michael @Ruhlman lent me a captivating new book written by Chef Dan Barber and called The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. In 2009 Time Magazine named @DanBarber one of the 100 most influential people in the world. I’m a little bit chagrined to admit that I am still reading this book, primarily because it makes me think so hard that I can only get in a chapter at a time before I have to set it aside and think about what the author just said.

Third Plate is what has gotten me thinking about the fact that mainstream America is surviving not on nutritious food but, instead, on a commodity-based diet. Read this recent post for more about commodities as they relate to food.

As I explained a few weeks ago, the salient characteristic of a commodity is that its price is determined not by quality, but by quantity. The commodity market grows with the ability to meet the demand for product. The particular commodity meets explicit contractual requirements that generally have no relationship to the product’s nutritive value or taste. The source and nutritional quality of the product become, essentially, irrelevant. Examples of commodities include white flour, sugar, soybean oil, “degerminated” corn meal, corn syrup, and corn starch. 

We can grow commodity, we can eat it, we can export it and feed it to animals. We can modify it chemically to remove a significant part of its nutritional value, and then use words like “enriched” and “fortified” when epidemics of anemia (iron), beri-beri (thiamine) and birth defects such as spina bifida (folate) lead governments to require replacement of some of the nutrients whose absence caused those epidemics. But sending commodity around the world under the guise of preventing hunger does not make it nutritious. The short cuts created by commodity-based eating are manifesting themselves in a worldwide epidemic of a different kind of malnutrition than ever seen before. The first and most visible symptom of this malnutrition? Obesity.

This is a major frameshift in the way we think about food. I would suggest that the best way to get around it, for now, is to ask yourself if you will be nourished by the item that you are lifting to your mouth. If you are unsure, then consider this possibility: Even though it is edible, it may be not food, but rather (as Michael Pollan calls it) a “food-like item.” Go ahead and eat it, if you’d like. But then go find something something nutritious to eat.

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