Friday, September 28, 2007

It's not just that we are what we eat...

In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollen sums up one of his chapters by saying that it is not only that you are what eat but that you are what you eat, eats. Think about it for a second...

Oh okay, I can't wait - ADD and all. I really I want to tell what that means in my understanding because I think this concept is vitally important to understanding why organic makes such a difference.

I used to think that food had nutrition almost by magic and that it was pretty much all the same. Some of it was probably better because it didn't have additives, but otherwise nutritionally speaking, it was all the same. But then, was talking about grain-fed beef vs. range cattle just all marketing hype?

What I have found out is No, not really.

Grain fed beef, for example has fat marbled throughout the meat and actually has more fat than pasture or range fed beef. Why is that? Mostly because grain fed beef stays put in one spot and range fed beef gets to roam. More exercise means more lean, even for cows. But that's not all. When a cow eats pasture, it (we are talking about steers here) doesn't just get grass. It eats other meadow vegetation, including herbs and such. There are actually quite a few things cows cannot eat. The Extension Office has more information on that under Poisonous Plants. Whatever nutrition is in the grass and herbs is picked up by the cow during digestion and goes to build the meat that we eat. Good grass - good cow.

What's in the corn that the cows are eating in the feed lot? Antibiotics to prevent disease in close quarters. Growth hormones to speed the process. And whatever nutrition is in the corn. Well, what would be in the corn? How was it grown? Most of the feedlot corn is grown in huge fields. To prevent diseases and weeds, it is sprayed with pesticides. The field has an herbicide application schedule. The field has probably been growing corn for some time and requires chemical fertilizers to produce a good crop. I may not have a complete grasp on the molecular science of what combines with what during the corn life cycle but up to this point I count three different classes of chemicals. Once the corn is harvested, shipped, stored and shipped to the feed lot, those chemicals are not necessarily gone or used up. And what kind of nutrition is in the fertilizer? When I read a fertilizer bag, I don't see a list of vitamins and minerals. Some things I can figure out, like it may have some kind of calcium something or other in it, maybe an ammonia compound or a nitrate. That is taken up by the plant during growth and transformed into the nutrients that are then passed to the animal that eats the corn. In this case a cow. Whatever nutrition the cow absorbs is then passed to us when we eat it. That was a long explanation for something that after while appears pretty self-explanatory.

Studies have shown that organic food has higher amounts of essential vitamins and minerals. Why is that? It's in the soil, baby. Organic farmers do not rely on the chemicals to prevent disease, pests, weeds or to promote growth. They have to rely on the innate health of the plant and the soil which it grows in. A healthy plant is much less susceptible to disease and insect damage. A plant is only as healthy as the soil it grows in. If that soil is living, rich with organic matter, beneficial microbes, etc. then the plant has much larger amount of nutrients to absorb to begin with. Which means we can absorb more nutrition from that plant. If we eat the plant at the right time, we maximize the nutrition we receive from that plant. In general, the more processing, the less nutrition. Tomatoes are one exception where slight processing releases lycopene.

There you have it, in a nutshell, tied up in a little box with a bow, Take it to the bank, take it to the grocery store with you. Visit your local farmer's market and get to know the people who grow the food you want to eat. Find out what they do and how they do it. Enjoy the food.
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