As we enter into not just a new year, but also a new decade, the media has been overflowing with lists of the best and worst of the past decade and all sorts of predictions for the coming ten years. I guess I got inspired.
And so, in no particular order, here are some thoughts about where we’ve been in terms of food and nutrition in the aughts, how far we’ve come and the path we seem to be on as we head into a new decade.
Low- to-no carb craziness. I am glad that craze is mostly behind us. Although I heard from a significant number of people that they had weight loss success following Atkin’s suggestions, the joy always seemed to be short-lived. Apparently the induction part of the diet - the elimination of carbs, the overindulgence of meat, the tunnel vision focus on fat and protein, the sweetening with artificial substitutes - appeals to many eager dieters. Not to me. The diet recommendations Atkins offers deeper into his books is what makes much more sense to me. But how many people read and follow this book to the end? How many dieters, after throwing themselves thoroughly out of balance in the first few weeks, mellow out and adopt lifelong eating habits which include a healthy portion of nutritious carbohydrates such as whole grains, legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables in addition to an appropriate amount of protein and fat, together with a permanent “good-bye” to sugar and refined white carbs, such as described in the final chapters of the Atkins best-seller?
This weight loss concept not only thoroughly pleased the meat industry, but also opened up a new product opportunity for other sectors of the food industry. In the midst of the craze, all sorts of “no- and low-carb” products landed on our supermarket shelves. Standard food items (bread, pasta, cereal, cookies, crackers, bagels…) suddenly black-listed, were quickly reconfigured, with who knows what, and redesigned with “low carb” or “carb smart” inked all over the package in an impossible-to-miss font size.
In the 2010s, I’m happy to say, I see this diet craze already relegated to the past. And I see the signs for it to be replaced, not with another trendy diet craze, but with a much more sensible shift from processed foods to whole foods. Go back to your Atkins book if you want, but read only the final chapters this time. The weight loss will likely be slower, but the results will be much longer lasting, and your overall health will thank you.
In addition, I think vegan, vegetarian and raw diets will become increasingly more popular. With several food safety scares, movies such as “Food, Inc” and “Fresh”, several new food industry books, such as Michael Pollan‘s, Eric Schlosser’s and Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent “Eating Animals”, together with the realization that meat-eating has direct climate change implications, the appreciation for no- or reduced-animal food diets is growing again. This is not a brand new movement. Dust off a copy of Frances Moore Lappe‘s “Diet for a Small Planet” or John Robbin’s “Diet for a New America” - our eyes are just being opened again, and I hope a little wider this decade.
And the same time, I think there will be an increase high-quality animal foods: humanely-raised, pasture-grazed, all organic, grass-fed. If I were a meat-eater, I would opt for eating less of it, but spending my meat money on higher-priced and higher-quality, (and, I hear, much better tasting) cuts. I suspect milk and other dairy products will increasing become available in this higher-quality version as well. And, if Vermont, California and a few other states prove be a model, the rules around selling raw milk will become more relaxed, so that you will have the option of buying organic, pasture-raised, unpasteurized, and unhomogenized milk directly from the farmer and small-scale farmers wanting to raise their heifers in a healthy way will be able to make a living doing so.
What I am feeling most hopeful about are various trends suggesting further improvements in this decade:
Childhood obesity - I think we may have reached a turning point. Rates seem to have reached a plateau, and with continued focus on improving school lunch programs, increasing physical activity and limiting “screen time” I think we are finally beginning to move in the right direction. How lucky our kids are to have a first lady like Michelle Obama, who moved into the White House and started digging up the lawn to plant a garden. Whether it was a recommendation from her pediatrician, her husband’s astonishment at the price of arugula, or a bigger view of the nation’s childhood weight crisis that first inspired her, the message she is sending out is loud and clear: eat more fresh food. And, while you’re at it, why not grow some yourself.
Local food production and consumption - I’ll admit I am a “localvore”. I’ve participated in several “Eat Local Challenges” including a week in January (I live in northern Vermont. It was a greenless week.) and I get the greatest satisfaction out of preparing and eating meals from ingredients sourced close to home (our own potatoes, onions and chives, Dave’s spinach, Vicky’s eggs, Lindsay’s milk.. for example, made a delicious frittata). Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms and farmers markets are growing at impressive rates, and seed companies are enjoying a boom time as small farms are expanding and people are feeling drawn to backyard gardening.
Tap water - For environmental, personal health and financial reasons, I am happy to see indications that the height of the bottled water craze is behind us. It’s back to tap, folks. Just pay attention to what you put your tap water in - no more plastic bottles, but now in stainless steel (and beware of “metal plus” bottles such as the SIGG ones which turned out had BPA in them as well!).. and maybe in glass by 2020?? The most cost-effective way to keep yourself hydrated just might be to wash out a glass juice bottle and fill it with tap water. Bottoms up!
It remains a good idea to check to see what besides H2O is lurking in your tap. You can add a filter to your faucet or run your tap through a (BPA-free) Brita pitcher first. If you want a little extra zing in your beverage, you can treat yourself to a seltzer maker. This nifty device may be one of my favorite purchases of the past year. You simply fill one of the screw-on bottles with tap, tighten it into place, give it a few squirts and voila, your very own bubbly. Once the company comes out with glass screw-on bottles, I will be really happy.
Sweeteners - our seemingly never fully satiated sweet tooth resulted in another decade of proportedly “healthier,” or simply less-caloric, ways to sweeten your life. As the known dangers of using artificial sweeteners increased, the industry worked hard to create a new sugar substitute. In waltzed Splenda — declared by many to be preferable to the artificial alternatives it pushed aside, since it is “made from sugar”, but somehow without the dreaded calories. If you are currently a splenda user, I am sorry to have to report, that natural it is not. It is a chlorinated artificial sweetener, with a long list of side effects and potential health concerns just like aspartame and saccharin.
Going forward, if you feel you need a packaged sweetener, your best bet is going to be stevia. Yes, it is processed, which ideally you would avoid, but it is made directly from the stevia plant. It has been available for years but only in the supplement section of health food stores, because the FDA had not approved it as a sugar substitute. Now that that has finally happened, your safest bet is using this plant-based, no-calorie sweetener…. as you ween yourself off packaged sweets altogether.
And, speaking of processed sweets - if you do yourself one huge favor in the coming years, refrain from consuming high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). This is huge - for one because it is a significant player in making us huge (overweight, that is) and we cannot digest is properly, and it is made from genetically modified corn and it helps make cheap food products cheaper and Big Food bigger.
Organics are so 2000s: welcome SOLE food in the 2010s: The rate of growth of the organic food sector has been impressive. So much so that it quickly caught the attention of Big Food and big food outlets, such as Walmart. As organic is becoming Big Organic, as described in Samuel Fromartz’s “Organic, Inc.” some of its authenticity is fading and without clear standards, definitions or oversight in place, the terms “organic” and “all natural” on a food label or body care product offer little significance. ”Local,” some have said, “is the new organic”. Although I fully support that shift for reliable food quality, I’m going to vote for another term for the coming decade: “SOLE”. SOLE food is Sustainable, Organic, Local and Ethically-produced. It’s a tall order, but why not raise the bar that far? We asked for organic milk, and the producers and venders delivered; we can just ask for more.
Where I am interested to see what develops this decade is in the area of sustainable seafood consumption. To eat fish or not? What kinds? How much? From where? Farm-raised or wild-caught? The research showing the positive health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is plenty convincing, but the mercury warnings have me running back to higher ground. I’ve started taking fish oil supplements to make up for my lack of fish servings, but from which fish are these supplements being made? And if we all become convinced of our need for additional omega-3 fatty acids, can the fish population possibly keep up with the increased demand? When I do buy fish, I make sure it is on the mercury safe list, such as wild Alaska caught salmon. It is by no means local. I order it online, and within 24 hours it arrives on my doorstep care of Fedex encased in ice packs. It doesn’t feel sustainable, and I wonder if there are situations where farm-raised fish might be a preferable alternative? My latest batch of supplements were krill oil. These are the tiny crustaceans, which, together with plankton make up the largest biomass on earth, making it a more easily renewable source of highly concentrated nutrition. I’ve been told they offer the same omega-3 nutritional punch I’m after, but without the overfishing concerns.
A seafood about which I am less confused is sea vegetables, otherwise knows as seaweed. One of my new year’s resolutions is eating more of this nutrient-dense food from the sea. My children are much better at it than I am, and I look forward to following their lead on this one.