There’s no getting around it. The ugly truth is, it costs more to eat well than it does to eat junk.
Let’s first understand why. In heavily industrialized and populated nations, especially those without a history and tradition of loving and respecting food, food is just another “product.” The manufacturers of food products, like producers of other mass market goods, need to make a product that meets three conditions in order for it to be profitable: 1) it has to reach a wide market 2) it has to have a long shelf life and 3) it has to be relatively inexpensive to produce. Add to this, of course, that it has to taste and look good enough for you to want to buy it.
Notice that being of high nutritional value doesn’t make the short list.
The first three of these conditions are very related. To reach a wide market, it has to travel well. That means the food has to be able to resist spoiling during the artificially long time it’s asked to “remain fresh,” i.e. during processing, packaging, shipping, and sitting around on the grocers shelf waiting for you to buy it. That means preservatives and chemicals. To have a long shelf life, it has to be relatively non-perishable. That means removing, through refining, everything that would cause it to “spoil,” which, coincidentally, are often the very things that makes it nutritionally useful. And to be economical to produce, it has to be resistant to annoying little problems like weather, climate, pests, bugs and the like. And that means pesticides.
And then there are the finishing touches. To make the product palatable, the food industry sweetens it. To make it visually pleasant, they color it. To make it inexpensive, they spray, genetically alter, selectively breed, mass produce, process and package crops, meat, grains and dairy into “food products” that bear about as much resemblance to what was grown on the Pilgrim’s farms as Super Mario does to a backyard game of catch.
What we, the consumer, gets for selling our nutritional soul is two things: convenience and price. The problem is, it’s a devil’s bargain. When you realize that there is a strong nutritional component to about seven out of the ten leading causes of death in this country, and that nutritional inadequacies have been linked to everything from ADD to infertility to cancer to heart disease to diabetes—(and I’m just getting started) only then do you begin to think that this trade-off might not be such a bargain after all.
But, since we do live on this planet, and since we do need to learn to deal with things the way they are right now, what can we actually do to improve our nutritional lives without breaking the bank?
I’ve come up with my own top-ten list. Some of the items on it are whimsical and philosophical, and some are concrete,but all are important.
- Realize that the biggest mistake we make as consumers is to assume that the companies producing food products have the slightest interest in our nutritional needs. “Shelf-life” is not synonymous with “Your Life.”
- Whenever possible, buy fruits and vegetables that are locally grown and produced. If you live in a big city, try to visit the farmers market. If you live in the country, try to find local suppliers.
- Realize that food product “bargains” may not be bargains at all. Longer shelf life translates into cheaper prices, but at what cost?
- Prepare in advance. When I say it costs more to eat healthily, I don’t just mean money. Convenience and time-saving is a big part of the equation. You can even the odds against you by preparing food in advance and taking them with you.
- Shop more often for perishables. This costs you more time, true, but the payoff is a big one. The nutrition that’s lost in fruits and vegetables just by sitting around would astonish you. It doesn’t cost any more to buy this stuff fresh than it does old.
- Frozen entrees are no bargain. Believe it or not, you can buy a couple of fresh vegetables, put a little butter on them and broil some lean meat or fish for about the same cost as a frozen dinner.
- The less processing the better. Think Caveman. Things that could be plucked, picked or grown are usually nutritional
- bargains, and pretty easy to find and prepare.
- Buy organic whenever possible. I know it’s more expensive, but if you can do it, it’s worth it. If you have to choose, my personal candidates for most important are eggs (for the omega-3 fats) and meats (free range, antibiotic/steroid free).
- For snacks, think nuts. It’s important that they not be rancid, so get as fresh as you can, preferably raw, preferably organic. They’re filling, delicious, and beat the pants off anything in the
- office snack machine.
- Reprioritize. You may have to put a little more time, or in some cases, a little more money, into food. This is accomplishable only if there is a real shift in consciousness about what’s important. Remember, having less of the really good stuff is a lot better than having more of junk.
Just like in life.
Affordable nutrition is probably not as cheap as we would like, but it also isn’t as expensive as we think. The question that has to be asked when it comes to buying and eating real food for you and your family is not “how am I gonna do it?” It’s “can I afford not to?”