Why Health & Wellness Education Must Travel Further
September 26, 2017 • By Seamus Mullen
As health and wellness awareness becomes more and more accepted into the mainstream in America, a lot of the major food companies are shifting their product offerings to meet the demand, buying up smaller brands and changing existing SKUs to conform with current nutritional trends.
This means that many of them have to look for new markets for the highly processed, sugary, nutrient deficient products that represent the majority of their revenue. In this recent article in The New York Times, the Swiss food company Nestle has invested a tremendous amount of money in direct marketing to the huge burgoning market of the developing world. As a result, traditional foods, like fresh fruit and produce, are being replaced by so-called nutritious food-like-products and the result is a health crisis, the likes of which we have never seen before.
As I read about the shift in food culture around the world, I’m deeply freightened by the impact it’s having on our health, world wide. We see time and time again, when cultures shift from their traditional foodways to adopting “western” processed foodstuffs, the price of health is immense. From the rise in type-2 diabetes and obesity to auto-immune dysfunction, ADHD and even Alzheimers, the writing is on the wall: eat processed food, get sick fast.
The problem is extremely complex. I remember going to Cuba in 2010 and being both amazed and saddened by the experience. They say it’s hard to take a bad photograph in Cuba, and it’s true- the landscape, the architecture, the everyday life is a mish-mash of lost-in-time and brilliant resourcefullness. To our outsiders eyes, it’s marvelous, like a time capsule museum. But to the Cubans I talked to, it’s not so novel. They wanted the same things everyone else in the world wants, they didn’t want to be pieces in a complex museum exhibit, they wanted Bluetooth and Spotify and fast food chains- they wanted progress. And in the developing world, progress and social status often means abandoning traditional foods and food practices in favor of highly-processed, industrial food-like substances. These food-like substances are poisons, yet they are addictive poisons that we can’t get enough of. I would even argue that they are more insidious than cigarettes or cocaine or meth because, unlike recreational drugs, when it comes to food, we all need to eat. We can live without smoking, but we can’t live without eating. So how to do we, the “developed” world, tell the rest of the world they shouldn’t want “progress” without furthing the cultural arrogance implicit in this notion?
It’s clear that we’re overloading our planet. We have long since surpassed a world population that the Earth can sustainably support and as a result we’ve turned to science and industry to create cheap, stable, calorie sources that can serve as a replacement for traditional foods, but at what cost? So that we can have a bigger, sicker, less productive world population? That may pose a problem even greater than food scarcity in the long run. Are we trying to defy evolution by overconsuming our resources and “hacking” mother nature through industrialized food sources? I’m afraid that this may be the case and if there’s one thing we can be sure of, mother nature will have the last laugh. She always does, you just can’t beat nature.
So what’s the anwer? Is it more science? More lab-grown animal protein? Is it insect based foods? Chemically composed meal replacements? Not only are those paths just band-aid solutions, in the long haul I suspect engineered foods will eventually prove to be poor substitutes for the real thing. I recently heard a very interesting and compelling argument for sustainability and food security and it was a pretty radical notion (I’m being sarcastic): provide educational opportunities to girls and women in the developing world.
When young girls and women are provided with a chance to learn, so many wonderful things happen, but the one that could have the greatest positive impact on sustainability is quite simple: teenage pregnancy goes down and as a result family size shrinks.
So perhaps there is some value in exploring new and alternative sustainable food sources like cricket flour. And yes, maybe even test-tube meat will play a role in improving food security in the future, but there is zero-risk to investing in education and the potential for reward is enormous. For this to happen, as a species, we have to look beyond our own generation and recognize that the cost of investing in the education of our children and grandchildren worldwide pales in comparison with the cost of not doing so.