Are we too refined?
Living outside of your country for more than a few months changes your viewpoint. I have been known to call living in one country while being from another, purgatory. You are not here or there. It can be frustrating during the first years but I have gained insight others may not have and I can safely say that I am no longer a complete outsider in Spain.
When I first moved to Seville in 1999, I was unhappy and felt like a fish out of water. I wore baggy pants and converse sneakers and people would look me up and down especially after I made an attempt to speak Spanish. Stores closed on Sundays and during siesta, I couldn´t find sour cream, and there were limited ethnic restaurants. When I went back to New Jersey all I wanted was Thai food, a good bagel, and some pizza.
Many years have now passed and my attitude has changed. I have given up criticizing what Seville lacks and have really found the beauty in what it has to offer; the Mediterranean diet and a more social way of living and eating (you will not find people eating in their cars here).
I still love to go to Thai or Indian when I am in New Jersey with my family but, now as a partial insider and partial observer, I view some of the eating habits in the US alarming.
You only have to see a few minutes of commercials or go to a mall to realize that there is a serious overall health problem in the country. It is not just obesity but also heartburn, heart problems, digestive diseases, depression, memory loss, etc.
Besides for elevated stress levels, reduced exercise and less socializing, it is evident that what we are eating is having a great affect on our health.
I remember when I first arrived to Spain in the early 1990´s, I was surprised to go to the market and see whole pigs, chickens with their heads, and rabbits with their eyes staring back at me. I grew up in the eighties so even though my mother cooked wholesome meals, the local Shop Rite did not have whole animals, and I was well versed with Chef Boyardee, instant mashed potatoes, and fluff “n” nutter sandwiches (although my mother would never have bought any of it).
Of course I understand that it is easier for parents on the go to reach for a squeezable organic fruit snack rather than a banana that will end up all over the car. However, now when I return to the States and see children that no longer eat real fruit and eat chicken nuggets that do not resemble a chicken, I wonder how we are modifying the future generation´s relationship with food, do we really know what is the product, and more importantly how are we changing our health and our bodies?
As they say, we are what we eat and in the United States we are eating a lot of fake food and food that doesn´t look like food. To quote for the millionth time Michael Pollen “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”. However, I think American marketing does a good job to confuse us on what food really is. For example, vegetable oil is made of vegetables, right?
Here is some insight, there is a big difference in how an Andalusian goes to the grocery store and how an American completes the same task. An Andalusian goes to the market and there are usually fewer options and fewer prepared foods (this is sadly changing). They go with the idea of getting fruit, a whole fish, the ingredients to make lentils, some eggs and bread. An American goes to the market and is bombarded by five hundred ads of what is healthy and what they should buy. I admit it is both confusing and enticing. Why should I make lasagna when I can buy it already made, we will save time and spend less.
Then you start to read the label and can´t recognize half of what is in there. All of the things we cannot pronounce are obviously not good but there is one intruder that claims to be real food and is not, this is vegetable oil. As an olive oil and healthy fat freak, I began to notice all of the refined oils we are eating. Plus in restaurants I could taste that the oil is often over heated and reused too many times. This saddened me as I watched little kids down French fries that were obviously loaded with carcinogenic substances enhanced by bad cooking practices. (Heating oil over a certain temperature causes free radicals, which are cancerous).
We consume Italian salad dressing, whole grain baked crackers, cereals, vegetable soups, smart balance spread and Hellmanns mayo and think we are eating real food and healthy but the truth of the matter is we are most likely consuming refined oils. Just like anyone I like good, fried chicken but I do think we need to visit the idea that we are consuming too much refined oil.
What is this oil I speak of? Almost all of the vegetable oils we use daily (Canola, Peanut, Soybean, Sunflower, Corn) have been refined with the exception of extra virgin and virgin olive oil, virgin coconut oil, avocado oil and some nut oils.
Before I start badmouthing the refined oil industry, I think there are some important factors that must be understood from the get-go. It must be known that the majority of the world´s oil does not start out fit for human consumption so it must be refined. It is impossible for all oil to be virgin or extra virgin. The refined oil industry will tell you that if it weren’t for them we would have a surplus of oil that could not be used in anyone´s kitchen and this is true. Likewise, not everyone can afford or has access to reasonably priced unrefined oils like extra virgin olive oil.
The oil industry and other interests do not want educated consumers. This just makes their job of making money and commercializing refined oil a lot harder. If we all knew the facts, what would we do with all of that oil? Misinformation and lack of information works to their advantage since what honest producer of virgin oil can compete with cheaper refined oils that promise to lower cholesterol?
So unfortunately, until someone figures out how to remove unpleasant odors, tastes and color from oil without using the current refining method, we will have the product and products that contain them on our shelves being disguised as healthy because it has omega 3 (an anti-inflammatory) when in reality it is also high in omega 6 (a pro-inflammatory) and whose overall chemical structure has been modified during degumming, bleaching and, heating and solvent treatments.
It is ironic that we have been made to believe that the smoke point of vegetable oils is higher than extra virgin olive oil (this is not true) but have not considered that during the refining process that same oil has been heated to 500º F (260ºC).
Omega 6 and 3 are necessary in the human diet however refined oils do not represent them in a healthy ratio. Experts say that in a healthy diet the ratio should be at 1:1 but in the Western world we are consuming closer to 16:1. (Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12442909). Olive oil does have omega 6 but not to the high extent of some refined oils.
Unfortunately, until a new and healthy refining system is discovered or we decided to spend a bit more on virgin oils, we will also be confronted with more and more health problems related to the pro-inflammatory properties associated with refined oils. These problems are the same that are echoed on our television commercials and affecting many of our loved ones (Alzheimer’s, depression, heart disease, memory loss, inflammatory bowel syndrome, autism, etc.). Could it be that the answer is not in a little pill that also “may cause diarrhea, light-headedness and depression” but rather in the way we eat and the fats we choose?