Then your blindfold is removed, and you discover that you’re not in a restaurant, but in a chemistry laboratory surrounded by strips of white paper carrying various aromas, tiny bottles of flavored liquids, and people in white coats. You’re in the lab of a US-based company called International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF) that is filling a need in the food industry worldwide—the enhancement of flavor and aroma in food.
In his book Fast Food Nation, author Eric Schlosser writes that IFF’s expertise has become a necessity in the production of many of the food items today because the canning, freezing, and dehydrating techniques used to process food destroy most of its flavor.
This illustrates just how our food may be produced these days—heavily processed, chemically enhanced. Food as we know it is no longer the same as the food our ancestors used to eat.
CHEMICALLY ENHANCED GOODIES
Food is a feast of chemicals, according to the International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS). Most of the naturally occurring chemicals in food—proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, trace elements, fiber, and antioxidants—are important for our nutrition and health, says the IPCS. Some foods, like cassava and potato, have naturally occurring toxic properties that can be eliminated by proper preparation and cooking.
But of great concern to consumer activist groups is that this feast of chemicals also include contaminants from external sources—lead and other toxic elements as well as artificial colors and flavors. Even fertilizers and other components that are added to make produce more resistant to pests are under fire. Farmers are not always properly educated in the use of these fertilizers, so they sometimes have to rely on their own experiments when it comes to using them.
While indiscriminate use of fertilizers has waned through the years, the problem with persistent organic pollutants and some pesticides, however, is that they can persist in the environment for several years after they have been applied, and their effects persist even years after they are banned. The Integrated Pest Management Program has reduced indiscriminate usage of pesticides, but a variety of potentially cancer-causing chemicals are still being used today.
Genetically engineered food has also made its way onto our dinner tables, with rice leading the pack. Opponents of genetic engineering and genetically-modified organisms believe that these unnatural products are unnecessary and may be dangerous to our health and environment. They also say that the benefits of these kinds of products are short-lived for both the consumers and the producers.
But it isn’t just rice or other crops that have been subject to genetic modification. Livestock and poultry farmers have been using feed and medicine to make their animals more resistant to disease. Farmers say that this is for the health of the animals as well as to protect themselves from financial losses in case of disease, but concerns have been raised because animals may develop immunity to the medicine that they ingest. This could be potentially harmful to humans.
(Photo by stevendepolo via Flickr Creative Commons)
LIFE IN THE FAST LANE
For others, the problem is not in the methods or chemicals used to grow or process food, but in people’s attitudes.
The desire for convenience and instant gratification seems to be on top of everyone’s list these days. “I think the basic problem with our food today lies more with people,” says Jacqueline Haessig Alleje, board member of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and another local proponent of the organic movement.
“With the development of supermarket chains, convenient food, ready mixes, ready sauces, and the like,” Alleje says, “people have become more alienated from the principles of food—what it is, how its produced, and how it’s prepared. Many people believe that food, at any given time and at any cost, has to be convenient.”
This convenience, Alleje says, comes at a price. In their efforts to increase production and to attract more customers than their competition, some food companies resort to creating the best flavors, colors, textures, and aromas for their products.
The problem comes when children ingest these artificial and fast foods and get used to it. As children grow older, they find themselves reaching for these kinds of foods out of convenience and out of the fact that they, at times, simply crave it. Fond memories with family now involve family outings in malls and feasts of burgers and fries instead of Sunday lunches at lola’s house. The result: a diet with less fiber, more calories, more fat--a potentially deadly mix that can lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
IS THERE ANYTHING SAFE TO EAT?
Local authorities believe that in spite of all this, sources of food that are safe to eat abound. Use of
chemical fertilizers and pesticides and drugs are still within safe limits, says Gilbert Layese, director of the Bureau of Agriculture and Fisheries Product Standards of the Department of Agriculture. Enough laws, regulations, and certification schemes are in place such as the Meat Inspection Code of the Philippines and the Good Agricultural Practices Certification Scheme, among others.
“Our laws are stricter than most countries,” says Layese. But he admits that, while producers in general are respectful and cooperative with the government, there are times when regulating agencies are also hard-pressed to be a little more lenient in the application of certain laws or policies.
Dietitian Joan Sumpio, on the other hand, says there really is no “safe” food to begin with. “There are plenty of factors that can affect our food. Even if the practices in a farm are safe, the conditions during transport from farm to market could now be the source of contamination. The climate, humidity, can change the chemical composition of food. We have to consider things like that.”
In any case, our bodies are pretty resilient, says Sumpio. It’s all part of the evolutionary process. “We somehow have the capability to adapt to whatever it is we put in our food. But of course, we still have to maintain a healthy and balanced diet, along with a healthy lifestyle.”
But all is not lost. With the advent of organic agriculture in the country, Filipinos now have alternatives.
Organic agriculture is defined by the IFOAM as a system of that promotes and involves “environmentally, socially and economically sound production of food and fibers,” relying on the natural capacity of plants, animals and the land. This kind of agriculture is one that significantly reduces the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and drugs.
While it is quite easy for any seller to simply claim a product to be organic, Layese says products that come from certified organic producers are the only ones permitted to be labeled as such. Certification by the Organic Certification Center of the Philippines (OCCP) and constant monitoring by the different government agencies, plus reports from consumers, he says, will ultimately weed out fakers.
Alleje says consumers play a big part in changing this situation. “The important thing is to educate yourself. For as long as there is no public awareness on what bad food can do to your health, there will be no pressure on manufacturers to improve their products,” she says.
Producing safe and healthy food is just one aspect, says Layese. “When it comes to organic agriculture that involves sustainable living too. The farmer gets what he deserves for his hard work. You protect the environment, you make the plants and soil healthy.”
(First published in Marie Claire Philippines, Features section as “Are we full of crap?” in January 2006; adapted for use in Female Network)
child eating(Photo by hoyasmeg via Flickr Creative Commons)