Where is your food really from? | AspenTimes.com

Where is your food really from?

Joni Keefe
Special to The Aspen Times

Educated food choices is the start for healthy change.

Only weather is more changeable than the news about food. The latest research reports tout what is bad to eat and then what is the next miracle food. Often a product can be reported as being good and bad for you during the very same year; coffee is an example. It is media attention, along with other forces, that has helped to define what is stocked on the store shelves and in our diets.

One problem is that our connection to real food and where it comes from has been diminished. We often choose what we eat by attractive packaging and superstar endorsements. The further consumers are removed from knowing anything about the origins of their food, the greater the lack of food reality becomes. We do not take time to question those implied benefits, and closing the sale for most is clever packaging and not food value. This acceptance of any product encourages manufacturers to be wildly creative and continually roll out new food offerings with reckless abandon. Inside factories, food products are manipulated and molded into attractive shapes, colors and textures, all to promote sales and not nutritional value.

There are 10 companies that control the majority of our food products, and we continually increase their market control by regularly purchasing from them. Within each, there is an extended family of product lines that include everything from their version of "healthy" items to totally unhealthy choices. For example, General Mills produces Lara Bars as well as Lucky Charms cereal, while Kellogg's has Bear Naked granola alongside Pop Tarts. What has happened to knowing what a company stands for? Is there no longer value in a name, or does a name not stand for anything?

Another challenge we face is that as consumers we have predictable shopping habits. Human behavior is studied to no end and applied to every square inch of a package and in the grocery store. If health benefits are being promoted, the earthy colors of brown and green are used along with clever words reflecting farms, grandmothers, happy cows and the like. For children, the cereal aisle becomes a colorful fantasyland of rainbows and cartoon characters. Nothing is unplanned, and everything is about getting their products into your cart.

New and sophisticated technologies also have helped to define what is available on the shelves, from smartphone apps to assist with crop growing to the computerized agricultural machinery that enables mass production. Biotechnology used in plant breeding, agrochemicals to speed growth and new ways for food to be cheaply processed in mass quantities have all helped to form what products we consume. On the global level, computer technology is at the hub, providing the infrastructure to move food to markets that previously were unreached.

For the most part, the grocery store used to be where fresh, raw products were sold as ingredients for home cooking. Today the shelves are filled with prepared foods or partially prepared food kits awaiting final assembly. As consumers, our decision to cook or have it prepared for us also has been a huge factor in creating this demand for packaged "food to go."

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These "wonderful" changes to have a variety of foods quickly available to consume has us being haunted now by its after-effects to health and the environment. The results are pouring in, with reports about pollution, obesity, inhumane production of animal products and numerous lifestyle diseases. No longer is it the "tree huggers," the "food snobs" or the "health nuts" who are making noise about these problems. Everyday people also are realizing that healthy food needs to be mainstream and made easily available.

Big changes can start immediately by simply asking more questions and becoming more "real food" educated. Making changes in purchases at the grocery store will have the greatest impact on the big 10. Cast your vote for healthy food every time you shop, and request more fresh products from local producers.

Joni Keefe moved to the Roaring Fork Valley after a career in landscape design. She is passionate about local food and agriculture. For more information, her website is Farmsfinest.com, or follow her on Twitter. Connect at joni@farmsfinest.com.