The damp-cardboard syndrome

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 We Want Real Food
How modern farming practices can make even healthy food choices feel like junk

TODAY AT LUNCH I ate a salad consisting of lettuce, carrots, celery and chickpeas. I also had a slice of whole-wheat bread and a cup of yogurt. All four food groups were represented; nothing was preservative-laden or processed beyond recognition. (No âeoecheese food,âe no ubiquitous EDTA.) It would be reasonable for you to suppose I ate a perfectly healthy lunch. I thought so too, until I read Graham Harveyâe(TM)s We Want Real Food: Why Our Food Is Deficient in Mineralsâe"and What We Can Do About It.

In it, Harvey argues that while thinking about how what we eat affects our wellbeing is good, itâe(TM)s a little beside the point. Our dietary health is, letâe(TM)s face it, firmly rooted in our soil. And we havenâe(TM)t been treating the earth very well for quite a while now.

The soil that should supply crops with the mineralsâe"such as magnesium, potassium and zincâe"that are necessary for good health is itself undernourished. Farming techniques that are common in Western countriesâe"such as the use of nitrogen fertilizer and mono-croppingâe"have left the land depleted, so even foods we consider healthy, like the ingredients in my salad, arenâe(TM)t as good for us as they used to be. We Want Real Food is a concerned, articulate and informed call for change.

Harvey is a British journalist (as such, the book is focused on the U.K.) who developed an interest in farming about 40 years ago. He currently works as the agricultural story editor for The Archers, a drama on BBC Radio 4. He has also written for publications such as New Scientist, The Sunday Times and the Daily Mail. His previous book, The Killing of the Countryside, a treatise against modern British agricultural practices, won the BP Natural Book Prize in 1997.

His writing is explanatory without being complicated or condescending. For instance, he writes, chemical fertilizers âeoeproduce a flush of leafy growth, âe¦ but itâe(TM)s an unhealthy growth with an imbalance of minerals and cell walls that are unusually thin.âe As a result, âeoethe plant is weakened and prone to disease. Thatâe(TM)s why farmers are forever spraying their crops with fungicides.âe

Harvey goes on to cite the work of geologist and nutritionist David Thomas, whose 2003 study published in Nutrition and Health, revealed just how much the nutrient content in our food has changed. For example, fruits picked in the nineties had 16 percent less magnesium and calcium, 27 percent less zinc, 24 percent less iron and 20 percent less copper than those harvested 50 years before.

We Want Real Food is neatly divided into 13 chapters. Some provide an overview of an issue, such as which nutrients people need and the consequences of not getting enough. Other sections look at specific foods, such as milk and dairy products, wheat and beef. The final chapters offer long-term (e.g. lobbying government) and short-term (e.g. shopping at farmers markets) solutions for changing how we farm and what we eat.

Throughout, Harvey shares some other scary facts. For instance, he writes about his own experiments using a Brix refractometer, a device that can be used to measure the concentration of sugars, and thus the mineral content and taste, of produce. Only one item out of almost 100 tested âe" it was a pear âe" scored an âeoeexcellentâe rating (the majority rated âeoepoorâe or âeoeaverageâe ). Later he explains: âeoeIn the elderly, [micro-nutrient deficiency] leads to the common degenerative conditions like osteoporosis, Alzheimerâe(TM)s, cancer and cardiovascular disease. In Britain, the worldâe(TM)s fourth largest economyâe"where food is cheap and plentifulâe"five out of six people over sixty suffer from one or more degenerative conditions.âe

The âeoeone vital stepâe towards better eating, writes Harvey, is choosing foods with an âeoeidentityâe : fresh foods that come from identified farms with all of their details printed on the packaging or available from the retailer. âeoeIf you know where a food comes from, you can act on your experience of it.âe

As impressive as Harveyâe(TM)s research and knowledge are, We Want Real Food reads a bit like a report, unlike, say, Eric Schlosserâe(TM)s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, which augments facts with many âeoereal lifeâe examples âe" Schlosser takes us inside a French fry factory where 25,000 pounds of oil cooks freshly harvested potatoes destined for McDonaldâe(TM)s, Burger King and more than 100 other places; he recounts the story of a man who became infected with E. coli 0157:H7, a potentially lethal pathogen, after eating a hamburger. These kinds of anecdotes make it a more enlightening and engaging read than Harveyâe(TM)s book.

Thatâe(TM)s a shame, because I sensed a bit more personality in Harveyâe(TM)s prose in the opening paragraphs of the book. (âeoeI might as well have been eating damp cardboard,âe he writes about a bunch of organic bananas he bought.)

Still, this book is a valuable exposé of how little substance there is in our sustenance. If the famous French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was right when he said, âeoeTell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,âe we have a very big problem. âe" Jennifer Oâe(TM)Connor

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