Rawlicious – almost enough to make a “raw foodist” of you

I had an interesting dining experience yesterday, at a place called Rawlicious. You might not expect much of a restaurant if the fare is only raw food, but I’d heard good things about Rawlicious, and to my great pleasure, they turned out to be true.

Yes, this enterprise comes laden with philosophy, but you can dine happily without considering it much. If you ask questions, the staff will answer, or you can peruse magazines with articles on nutrition and the national food supply. And on the restaurant’s “Food for Thought Friday,” patrons can participate in a communal table in the “Zen Den,” watching films on the politics of food, and discussing them afterward. According to the Rawlicious website, they will soon be offering “Wellness Services” too.

So the philosophy is there if you want it, but my friend and I came for the food. We wanted to discover what sort of restaurant-style meals could be created when all ingredients were raw. And Rawlicious provided a satisfying variety of selections.

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If We Are What We Eat…Redux

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Thus journalist Michael Pollan begins his book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. And once he makes his case for returning to a diet without processed foods, you see that those three rules are truly as simple as they look.

But first, the complicated bits. Raj Patel recently demonstrated how the agro-industrial complex has almost taken over the world’s food supply, to the vast detriment of, well, everything. (Countries’ economies, small farms, food quality, people’s health etc.) His book, Stuffed and Starved, looked mostly at the macro level of the world’s food systems, from the viewpoint of a former World Bank employee.

Now Pollan delves into the same history, showing us more of the micro level: how the agro-capitalist takeover has undermined the health and well-being of millions of people, and how it’s getting worse very, very quickly.

It’s called the “Western diet.” And wherever it has spread, since the early twentieth century, observers have noted a drastic rise in heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, alongside an astonishing increase in malnourishment. It consists of massive volumes of highly-processed foods (Pollan calls them “edible food-like substances”), marketed by corporations, prepared and eaten quickly, in large portions of non-nutritious, empty calories. (Even supposedly healthy fruits and vegetables now suffer from the same problem.)

And it goes hand-in-hand with what Gyorgy Scrinis labelled “nutritionism” – an almost religious belief in isolating “nutrients” in food, which then requires a scientific high priesthood to decree which nutrients can be processed out, and which must be processed back into our new, improved imitations of food.

The first problem, says Pollan, is that science can only talk about nutrients it’s discovered – and there are thousands it hasn’t isolated yet, even in simpler foods. And food scientists rarely examine how nutrients interact with each other (especially if they haven’t discovered them all), so it’s no wonder they’re always finding a new “essential nutrient” that becomes the latest rage. One year, it’s trans fats (look how that turned out!), another year it’s oat bran; this year it’s Vitamin D.

So nutrients don’t do what they’re supposed to, scientists study more, add other nutrients that don’t seem to work, study again, add other nutrients, and on it goes. You start wondering what logic justifies processing out the original nutrients if they’re just going to have to add them back in again, hoping they’ll work this time. (One guess: huge corporate profits!)

The engineering extends further, back to crops or animals, feeding them simplified, processed food, again ignoring the millions of nutrient reactions they need that science hasn’t discovered – and the original foods, too, become less nutritious despite all this “healthy” care.

As consumers of the “Western diet” have become more and more obsessed with nutrients and “healthy” eating, the more unhealthy they’ve become. Yet humanity ate the whole foods in traditional diets, and maintained excellent health (or they’d have stopped eating them!) for thousands of years before all this “help.” They didn’t know what nutrients the foods contained – they just ate them, and thrived.

Pollan carefully and convincingly traces the history of the “Western diet” and the eager (and profitable) marketing of “nutritionism” while correlating it with the rise in associated ailments. But if that was all he did, a reader might be tempted to despair. However, he suggests ways to return to a diet that produces real health.

Eat Food. Meaning whole, unprocessed food from growers and producers who don’t process their crops or animals. Try farmers’ markets. Or, if possible, food grown in your own garden.

Not too much. Consumers of the “Western diet” really consume– partly, Pollan suspects, because the body keeps trying to find enough nutrients among all those empty calories. He believes it’s easier to be sated if the body is nourished on whole foods without the nutrition processed out of them.

Mostly plants. We can obtain all the nutrition we need (even iron and protein) from a diversity of plants, supplemented if we want by fish and only occasional servings of meat.

Pollan’s book is well researched, clearly and understandably written – and full of dire information. Yet it does not feel dire at all, and Pollan remains cheerfully optimistic that people not only can reverse the effects of the “Western diet,” but gradually reclaim the world’s food production systems. His infectious optimism leaps from the pages of his book and makes you want to go out and find a farmer’s market immediately.


If we are what we eat, we’re in big, big trouble

Raj Patel is a man who has seen the worst that can be done to the world’s food system — yet retains hope that it’s not too late to rectify the atrocities. It’s a good thing he projects this optimism, because otherwise the information he conveys would be more likely to inspire despair than hope.

Patel spoke on Tuesday evening about his new book, Stuffed and Starved, at another of Pages Books’ “This is Not a Reading Series” events. And the incongruity between the examples he listed and his cheerful, upbeat demeanour, was surreal even while it was comforting.

A former employee of the World Bank, Patel really knows his stuff. And four years of touring the world to research the food situation first hand only deepened his understanding, and raised his level of urgency.

The facts are chilling. For example, a mere four super-corporations control 90% of the entire world’s food production and distribution. The World Bank is happy to lend money to poorer nations for food production — and then sets conditions (such as “liberalization” of the country’s economy) that put farmers directly in the sights of these corporations, which see to it that while the farmers are less and less able to survive on what they’re paid, the corporations become more and more staggeringly rich. The result is currently a veritable epidemic of farmer suicides, all over the world. As Patel puts it, a World Bank loan is “the gift that keeps on taking.”

Meanwhile, remember our mothers telling us, “Eat your dinner because there are children starving in Africa”? Well, because of the “liberalization” of the economy in India, there are now more children starving there than in the entire continent of Africa. India, in fact, is a textbook case for how the capitalist redesign of the food system has devastated the planet. Alongside the 20 million starving people, you have the highest concentration of Forbes millionaires in the world. You also now have the highest percentage of diabetics in the world.

It’s because this Brave New “Liberal” Economy is explicitly designed to make us dependent on “convenient,” unhealthy food. Convenience, says Patel, is “socially constructed.” Our food isn’t being made for us — we are being made for our food. And the corporations happily play both sides: the same company that owns Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream also owns Slim-Fast.

Patel pointed out that for every so-called “famine” in the 20th century, there was actually more than enough available food for everyone. Why the famine, then? No one could afford to pay for food.

The super-corporations and their satellites have more right to become engorged and wealthy than you have to live. Think about that.

But all is not yet lost! Patel is very optimistic, and sets out ten ways we can still redeem the situation, on his Stuffed and Starved website. But he gave his audience some general direction on Tuesday evening, his ideas including changing our own food tastes, frequenting farmers’ markets, joining local Community Supported Agriculture organizations, and affirming every worker’s right to dignity and fair treatment. (Even organic food organizations can exploit workers.) All of these things are linked. The most important thing is to promote “food sovereignty,” since every community has an absolute right to control its own food system.

Patel takes great heart from the workers’ and peasants’ movements that are now mobilizing all over the world. The iron grip of the corporations (and the western governments that support them) has broken in many places, with food riots breaking out and agro-workers organizing to help each other and local consumers. Ideally, Patel said, we would de-fund the devastating World Bank, and remove agriculture from the World Trade Organization.

How on earth can we justify people starving, just so long as the corporations create “shareholder value”??

We shouldn’t have to, and in fact, we must stop it from continuing. Raj Patel has now raised his knowledgeable voice with many others, and inspires hope that it is still possible to break the back of the monoliths and reclaim our own food.