Living in the modern world, it seems each day brings new warnings about how our environment is conspiring to kill us, from cancer-causing cell phones to plastic-laden drinking water to hormone-disrupting skin care products. And one of the biggest threats to our health, according to nutritionist and journalist Kristin Lawless, is something we put into our bodies at least three times a day: food. Even the pricey organic stuff.
In her new book Formerly Known as Food: How the Industrial Food System is Changing Our Minds, Bodies and Culture, Lawless outlines how the billion-dollar modern food industry has altered our perception of what’s good for us, leading us away from healthy, whole foods and and steering us towards plastic-swaddled, additive-laden processed snacks with which, because they’re stamped with an “organic” label, we virtuously fill our shopping carts. And while ranch-flavored kale chips and honey-sweetened coconut milk ice cream can certainly be delicious, Lawless writes, they come at a high cost: an unprecedented consumption of dangerous chemicals that are as unhealthy for the environment as they are for our brains, bodies and guts.
So what’s a raw almond-poppin’, kombucha-sippin’ gal to do? We spoke with Lawless about the degraded state of our national food supply—and her vision of how America can rediscover whole, nutrient-dense meats, fruits and vegetables.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Kristin. In the promotional literature for your book, there’s an eye-catching line that reads, “If you think buying organic from Whole Foods is protecting you, you're wrong.” What’s the issue with stores like Whole Foods, and if we can’t find healthy food at these places, then where can we shop?
Kristin Lawless: My issue with organic food is with the highly processed, packaged versions of foods that are totally junky but still stamped with an “organic” label. That label is really just marketing; if you look carefully at the ingredients lists, they’re full of questionable ingredients that don’t constitute a whole food at all. The food industry has trained us to just look at labels and if we see the word “organic,” we assume it’s a food that’s good for us. People buy into that notion even though it’s false.
I’m not saying that organics are bad; I’m a proponent of them. But the term has been co-opted by powerful companies to sell us stuff of dubious quality. Even items like “organic milk” and “organic beef” have very poor standards to meet to earn the label, and the companies that manufacture them can charge us more, which they are happy to do.
In the book, you talk about how food today has less nutrition than it did in the past. How is industrial farming responsible for this?
Industrial farming relies heavily on monocrops like corn and soy, instead of crop rotation that keeps soil healthy. Once the soil is depleted, the nutrient density of the foods grown in it also goes down. Studies have shown that the nutrient density of many of the crops we’re eating is far lower than it was in the 50s, before the advent of industrial farming.
The other issue, when it comes to nutrition, is that we’re not eating the whole foods that our grandparents and great grandparents did. Instead, we eat highly processed, packaged foods. So what’s wrong with packaged processed foods? They’re based on highly refined grains, highly refined vegetable oils, they’re full of added sugar and all kinds of additives and preservatives. Plus, the packaging is often laced with endocrine-disrupting chemicals whose effects on the body are are very scary, to say the least.
What advice can you offer eaters who want to eat healthily within our food system?
Years ago, we were told that eggs were bad for us, that we should discard the yolk and eat only the whites, or, even worse, highly processed industrial foods like Egg Beaters. This information turned out to be completely wrong; in fact, all the nutrition of an egg is in the yolk.
In the book, I talk about my Whole Egg Theory; basically, you have to eat the whole food as it exists in nature: whole milk, steak with fat, chicken with skin. We’ve been so confused by the dietary guidelines that come straight from the food industry, which have turned out to be misleading at best. If you have the opportunity to buy organic produce and grass fed and sustainably raised animals—if you have access to these foods and can afford them—of course that’s a great way ensure your own health.
Is there anything that can be done about the problems in the food supply? Are consumers totally powerless?
This, really, is why I wrote the book. The whole last section is devoted to what we need to do in order to change the industrial food system, and it doesn’t come down to individual choice like “vote with your fork”—that just doesn’t work. We can’t rely on the corporations to change.
What we need to do is apply pressure to regulatory bodies like the FDA and the EPA who are supposedly beholden to the people to regulate the corporations, which, in our current system, still have free reign on what they can put into our food. Without this kind of pressure, I don’t see how we’re going to make significant change.
We have to demand these changes through protest. In this administration, we’ve seen that when people rise up and protest it does actually do something. I want people to rally around this food issue, too; it might not seem as pressing as some of the awful headlines we read on a daily basis, but I really think it is because we’re talking about the health of all of us.