Tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you who you are. — Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
“You are what you eat,” is how most of us know this phrase. But that abridged version misses the point of Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s assertion. The author of what’s considered the classic French cookbook was saying that not only are we defined by what we eat, but also that who we are determines what we eat.
It’s a wonderfully subtle observation that encompasses two facts. The obvious fact is that we are physically composed of what we eat and therefore, “You are what you eat,” is entirely accurate. This interpretation also allows for the effects of caffeine, chocolate, vitamin tablets, and trans-fats on our bodies and our selves. The less obvious fact is that who we are determines what we eat. Our regional and ethnic origins determine what we eat, our class and income determine what we eat, and even our philosophies and religion determine what we eat. In the mid-18th to 19th centuries when Brillat-Savarin lived, he could guess with reasonable accuracy where a Frenchman was from, what his income was, and perhaps even his profession, based on his diet.
The battles for your belly being waged between Big Ag, health advocates, small farmers, chain restaurants, grocery stores, food co-ops, pharmaceutical companies, and groups like PETA and the Slow Food movement are an effort to influence, as much as possible, what we eat. As Brillat-Savarin might note: Their goal is to determine who we are.
This assault on our decisions about food is tremendously confusing. We are assailed from every direction with claims about the food we eat. Today red wine is healthy, tomorrow it’s not. Yesterday organic food was healthier and environment-friendly, today it’s not — or it still is. The food pyramid was turned sideways but is still a pyramid. Small farmers beg for governmental help to survive, but the help ends up bettering Big Ag instead. PETA assails beef production as being environmentally unsound while ignoring the environmental impact of thousands of acres of monocultural (single species) grain and cotton production.
In this world we’ve created it seems inescapably true that there are no easy answers. Black and white are merely theoretical constructs created to define some imaginary points at the end of an infinite spectrum of gray – or green.
For example: Is organic food healthier? Seems like a simple question, but healthier than what? By organic do you mean the food sanctified with a USDA “organic” label? What about the non-sanctified chickens I buy from a local farmer? I’ve talked to the farmer about how he treats his chickens, I’ve seen the yolks of their eggs change color over the course of the year as the chickens eat the different things growing in the fields as the seasons change. I’ve never seen his farm (it’s on my list of things to do) but over the past two years of buying eggs, chicken, beef, and pork from him I’ve come to trust him. He makes no official organic claims because getting certified is too expensive for a small operation like his. Nevertheless, he avoids mega-doses of chemicals on his fields and says his animals don’t need antibiotics or hormones – so why spend the money?
An obvious question, then, is how do the organic chickens at your supermarket stack up to my local farmer’s? In Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma the author documents how similar the lives of chickens raised in organic factory farms are to their non-organic counterparts. Even the organic birds are kept 20,000 to a shed and fed a steady diet of corn. For a couple of weeks, just before they’re slaughtered, they have access to a tiny patch of lawn that they’re too afraid to venture out onto.
If by “healthier” we mean less potentially unhealthy, then sure, organic chickens are probably healthier to eat. But if by “healthier” we mean that organic chickens are a source of superior protein, minerals, vitamins, and even some other potential nutrients we’re only now beginning to investigate (I’m thinking here of the flavonoids and resveratrol recently isolated in red wine), then most “organic” chickens probably aren’t any healthier to eat than their non-organic, also factory-raised counterparts.
So here we sit, wondering what to eat and what not to. Wondering if we really benefit the environment by eschewing meat, or if the vegans are just twisting facts to suit their agendas. Wondering if, as Pollan suggested recently in a New York Times magazine essay, Unhappy Meals, any food labeled as healthy probably isn’t.
Given the lack of certain knowledge, we decide what to eat according to hunches and emotions and our aesthetic reaction to words like “organic” and “free-range” – whatever they actually mean – and exactly as people have always decided how and what to ingest in order to sustain themselves. Me? I ignore government “Organic” stickers. I eat locally raised food when I can, and it tastes better. I suspect it’s more nutritious, but have no real data beyond early studies to go on. And if I’m hungry for a Krispy Kreme donut or some homemade duck confit, cooked for hours in its own fat, then I eat it.