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What happened to Real Food? E-mail
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Sunday, 05 March 2006
What happened to Real Food?


The Daily Mail (London, England)

By Grahan Harvey

What happened to real food? Vegetables without any vitamins, substandard meat - and organic apples that won't keep the doctor at bay. No wonder chronic illness is rife. In this shocking new report, we reveal how the true cost of modern food production is 21st-century malnutrition...

My quest for real food started with a bunch of organic bananas. I bought them in a wholefood shop. They hadn't looked particularly promising - a sort of washedout grey colour - but I felt sure they'd ripen once I got them home.

A week later they were starting to go soft, and the skin had turned even more grey. I peeled one and took a bite. It wasn't that it tasted bad. Quite the opposite. There was no discernible taste of any kind. I might as well have been eating damp cardboard.

This came as a shock. If it had been the usual chemically-grown stuff, I'd have understood - but we're talking organic here.

These bananas had been grown without any chemical sprays, and nourished with barrow-loads of good old-fashioned compost - or so I imagined. They ought to have been full of flavour.

Then again, maybe I shouldn't have been that surprised. I'd experienced tasteless organic produce before - carrots that hardly registered on the taste buds; apples with all the sweetness and flavour of household soap.

The sad truth is that most fresh foods - organic or otherwise - no longer taste of much at all. Many are deliberately harvested while under-ripe to extend their shelf life.

More significantly, they've been robbed of many of the healthy trace elements they once contained.

A revolution in the way they're grown has taken away the very nutrients that once promoted good eating and good health. Our staple foods have been 'dumbed down'.

As a result, Britain, like other industrial countries, is suffering a tidal wave of sickness.

It's cruelly ironic. Today's farmers feed twice as many people as they did before World War II. Never in our nation's history has so much wheat poured into the grain silos; never have so many milk tankers lumbered up and down the motorways.

Yet amid all this plenty, the British people are ailing. The conditions that afflict us are not the great diseases of old - cholera, typhoid, diphtheria and TB. Instead, we're succumbing to what health authorities term 'the diseases of civilization'.

In other words, diseases that result not from invasion by pathogenic organisms but from a collapse in our bodies' support systems.

The names of today's illnesses are frighteningly familiar: coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, Alzheimer's and depression. Hardly anyone in Western society remains untouched.

In Britain - as in the United States - one in three of us will develop cancer. Half the population is likely to suffer from heart disease during their lifetime, and one-third of the population will develop an allergy.

Despite this grim litany, health statistics show we are continuing to live longer. What the figures don't reveal is the massive increase in medical intervention it takes to keep us going.

Could food really be responsible for the health catastrophe that has overtaken the Western world? It seems scarcely credible. Yet the fact is that Britain is 50 years into a mass experiment in human nutrition.

We're all eating foods that have been stripped of the antioxidants, trace elements and fatty acids that once promoted good health. Is it any wonder our body maintenance systems are breaking down?

The causes of this catastrophe lie in the soil. Whenever I take the train north, I pass a series of intensive vegetable fields strung out alongside the railway. The sight of this invariably fills me with gloom.

In the summer months it's mostly planted with salads or vegetables - laser- straight lines of cabbages, carrots or iceberg lettuce. From the train you can see the tramlines, the spaced tractor-wheel marks that show the pesticide sprayer is frequently taken through the crop.

In the winter the ground is bare.

There's not a weed to be seen. When the weather's wet, pools of water lie on the surface, unable to drain.

Even from the train you can see this land is sick. It is so drenched in chemical sprays and fertilizers that its normal function has virtually broken down.

The soil's robust crumb structure, which allows water and air to pass through its top layers, has disappeared. Beneficial creatures such as earthworms have suffocated. The only way plants can be induced to grow here is with the constant spraying of pesticides.

Who will buy these vegetables, I wonder, washed and packed for a supermarket somewhere? Perhaps it'll be some harassed young mother, cajoling her youngsters into trying a carrot or a floret or two of broccoli with their chicken dinosaurs. It'll do them good, she'll promise.

But she’ll be wrong.

There'll be precious little in those vegetables to help her kids grow up strong and healthy.

Judging from the abused and miserable soil that grew them, it's hard to imagine they'll produce any sort of nourishment.

And the tragedy is that with a season or two of care and attention, those fields beside the railway tracks could grow the sort of food that would make her children as strong as lions.

It's sometimes hard to comprehend the pace and scale of the revolution that has overtaken the countryside.

Anyone born before 1960 will have been raised largely on natural foods, grown by traditional methods. Most people born after that time will have grown up on fake food: unwitting victims of a mass dietary con-trick.

The world I was born into at the tail end of World War II was still largely 'organic'. At that time the word had no meaning. This was the way all foods had been produced, from prehistory onwards.

No doubt we ate our share of industrial foods - white flour, sugar and margarine. But the industrial mind hadn't yet begun to debase traditional foods.

Our milk was local: three pints daily, the thick topping of yellow cream stretching a quarter of the way down the bottle.

Our butter - from the Co- op grocers at the end of the road - was a deep yellow colour, showing that it, too, had come from cows eating little but fresh grass.

The chances are that it was richly endowed with fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids.

Most of our meat was from the Coop's butcher. The beef probably came from South America, reared on the pampas grasslands of Argentina.

Like the famous roast beef of old England, it was pasture-fed, so would have been healthy meat.

Our bread came from a bakery just five streets away. The wheat in it is likely to have crossed the Atlantic from Canada or the United States, but it was grown largely without pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

Almost everything else we ate travelled no distance at all. My grandfather, Tom, grew it in the back garden. It was in that little garden that I learned 'the law of return', the guiding principle observed by growers down the ages.

Every so often, my grandfather would spread the ground with 'muck' - manure from the chicken run, crumbly compost from the bin behind the tool-shed, or farmyard manure scrounged from heaven knows where.

In return for these gifts, the ground would pay us back handsomely. Most days there'd be something to take back to the kitchen: a milky white cauliflower; a bunch of carrots, feathery tops still attached; or a bowl of bright red tomatoes.

Today, food is different. On a sunny morning I join the shoppers pushing their trolleys through the entrance of our local supermarket in Somerset.

They expect the foods they buy to keep them healthy, but they're likely to be let down.

Oh yes, most of it looks attractive enough - especially the fruit and vegetables. Supermarkets like to make a big show out of fresh produce. It makes them appear caring and responsible.

The moment you push your trolley through the automatic doors, you're confronted by a colourful display of plump, unblemished apples, leafy salads, and king-sized carrots and potatoes. But it's all a sham.

One way to measure the nutrient content of fresh foods is to taste them.

Foods that seem bland and flavourless are almost certain to be low in essential minerals. In fact, good food often tastes sweet.

We've come to associate sweet tastes with unhealthy junk food and confectionery. But in nature, sweetness has long been associated with strength and vitality.

It is often linked to rich sources of essential trace elements such as zinc, magnesium, copper and boron.

Sugar content in fruit and vegetables also correlates with a range of valuable materials such as amino acids, proteins and phytonutrients.

For early man - the huntergatherer - there was an evolutionary advantage in developing a sweet tooth. It was a means of selecting the ripest foods, which would be at their most nutritious. Today, fresh food no longer tastes sweet, and it's a sign that something is very wrong.

If you don't trust the evidence of your tastebuds, there's a less subjective test. It's called the Brix refractometer, a device that measures sugar concentration and is widely used by supermarkets to find out when fruit is ripe.

The refractometer works by taking a sample of juice, then measuring how far a beam of light is bent - or refracted - when passing through it.

The more dense the liquid, the more the light is refracted. It's a good indicator of food quality. The higher a food's score, the more likely it is to be rich in minerals and antioxidants - and to taste good.

Using a refractometer I bought by post for [pounds sterling]35, I set out to test the integrity of my local supermarkets.

In my nearby town of Taunton I visited the three biggest stores - Tesco, Sainsbury's and Morrisons. I bought a range of fruit and vegetables, all UK-grown and imported, and analysed them that same day.

My results were grouped under four quality headings: poor, average, good and excellent. Of almost 100 pieces of fruit and vegetable tested, only one - a pear - was 'excellent'.

No less than 70 per cent of the foods I tested fell into the 'poor' or 'average' categories. These are foods too low in nutrients to promote good, long-term health.

In addition, they tasted dreadful. I sampled every vegetable or piece of fruit I tested, and it was sometimes an unpleasant experience.

My survey also confirmed what those tasteless bananas made me suspect: the label 'organic' provides no guarantee of nutritious food.

A tray of organically grown Spanish strawberries from Sainsbury's, for example, came out as 'poor', the same category as Tesco's conventionally grown crop. Organic oranges, organic carrots and organic tomatoes all produced dismal results.

Organic crops are produced without pesticide sprays or chemical fertilisers, but that doesn't mean the soils they're grown in will contain the right balance of minerals and trace elements to grow healthy produce.

Indeed, as the organic market expands, more crops are being grown on land 'converted' after decades of chemical farming. A change to organic methods doesn't automatically revive these devastated soils.

Of course, it's not just humans who suffer through poor quality crops - farm animals are affected, too, which then stores up more problems for us when we eat them.

Take the degradation of beef. For the past 30 years or so, farmers have sown most grass fields with a single species: perennial ryegrass.

They've been persuaded by government advisers and the chemical industry that by growing a monoculture and plastering it with large amounts of nitrogen fertiliser, they'll get more grass to the acre.

But while acres and acres of fertilised ryegrass may produce large amounts of leaf tissue, it's not particularly healthy for the animals that eat it.

It's a kind of ruminant 'fast food', unbalanced in its mineral content.

Until the arrival of cheap modern fertilisers, no self-respecting livestock farmer would have dreamed of sowing a new pasture without including at least half a dozen different species.

NOW, the grasses fed to cattle have all the mineral content of over-boiled cabbage. As a result, consumers are supplied with substandard meat, lacking the full complement of vitamins and minerals it used to contain.

Meanwhile, industrial farming has mounted a second attack on the health-giving properties of British beef: feeding cattle on cereal grains.

While small amounts of grains do little harm, large quantities make ruminants such as cattle ill.

On too rich a diet, the animal will die. But before that happens it's likely to put on flesh at a rapid rate - which is what appeals to farmers.

Most American beef is fattened on grains in huge meat production factories called feedlots. Feedlots on such a scale are rare in Britain, but a country which was once famed for its beef still manages to produce its own unhealthy, cereal-fed variety.

I met a Somerset dairy farmer who fattened bull calves like this. He kept them in a shed on a ration of wheat, with soya meal to boost the protein.

There was just one snag, the farmer told me. If these young animals weren't fed precisely the right amount at exactly the right time, they had a tendency to die.

This came as a shock. I suggested maybe it wasn't a great idea to feed them a diet so unnatural they might drop dead. What was it doing to the quality of the meat, I wondered?

The farmer didn't seem concerned.

It was simply a matter of being careful, he said. When I asked what happened to his finished bulls - the ones that survived, that is - he told me they ended up in the 'economy mince' of a major supermarket chain.

What farmers like this don't realize is that taking beef cattle off pasture, and feeding them on cereal-rich rations, has had dire consequences for the nation's health.

It has exacerbated a crisis that, according to Professor Michael Crawford of North London University, is more serious than obesity. It's the sickness caused by an imbalance of essential fats in the national diet.

To remain healthy, human beings need a variety of essential fats, including two types of polyunsaturated fats - omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

It's the proportion of these two fats that's crucial. In a healthy diet, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 should be no higher than four to one, and preferably lower. In the diets of our Stone Age ancestors, it is believed to have been equally balanced. In most modern Western diets, the ratio can be as high as 20 to one.

One of the main reasons is that the polyunsaturates in cereal-fed beef contain too high a proportion of omega-6 fats, which have been linked to a range of inflammatory diseases, including asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.

Feeding dairy cattle on cereals is just as damaging. Milk from grassfed cows contains high levels of essential fatty acids, particularly something called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has strong anticancer properties.

But when cows are fed on small amounts of grain the CLA level in milk falls dramatically.

The content of our milk has also been changed by today's emphasis on high yields.

In the 1960s, the average yield of a British dairy cow was a 3,500 litres a year. Today the average is double this, with some herds notching up 10,000 litres or more.

However, each animal is able to transfer only a fixed amount of vitamins to her milk. The greater her milk volume, the more dilute its vitamin content.

And what of wheat, a food as old as civilization itself? Whole grains, such as wheat, barley and oats, are an important part of the human diet, and in my local supermarket there seem to be plenty on offer - wholewheat bread and pasta, or wholegrain breakfast cereals.

What the packaging doesn't tell you is that the grain is likely to be depleted in minerals and carrying the residues of pesticides applied to the growing crop.

Some grains come from soils so damaged by chemicals and fertilizers that their nutrient content is dramatically reduced.

Some of the biggest villains in this story are nitrogen fertilizers. These artificial compounds - the products of a worldwide chemical industry - are the powerhouse that drives modern farming. And it's these small, white pellets that have degraded our everyday foods most of all, and led to the upsurge in ill-health.

Drive around the countryside in spring and you'll see, stacked up in almost every farmyard you pass, squat 'dumpy' bags of the kind that builders' merchants deliver small amounts of gravel in.

Inside are nitrogen fertilizers waiting to be spread on our fields.

The trouble is that while they appear to be a magic wand to boost crop yields, these fertilizers actually weaken plants by stimulating excess growth of sappy tissue with thin cell walls.

The crops that are grown this way are more prone to disease, which is why they need constant spraying with chemicals to keep them standing. Instead of solving problems, nitrogen fertilizers actually create them.

The pity of it is that there was once a time when the British were rather good at farming. As far back as Roman times, these islands off the north-west coast of Europe were exporting wheat to the rest of the Continent.

We had been blessed with deep, fertile soils and a mild climate.

Somehow, we have contrived to squander those advantages.

Some of the best vegetables I have ever tasted are grown by a runaway monk.

For 20 years he lived a life of prayerful contemplation. Then, out of the blue, he fell in love with a travelling piano tuner.

And suddenly his world was turned on its head.

Today, the two of them share a small Dorset cottage with a five-acre paddock attached.

While she journeys to the distant parts of Wessex tuning neglected Steinways, he pours his new-found happiness into the small market garden he is creating on his rich, dark soil.

I met Jonno by pure chance, while driving down his quiet lane. Lashed to a tree was his hand-painted sign with the day's offerings chalked on it.

That's about the only advertising he does.

But when I tried the carrots and plump, ripe tomatoes, I was hooked.

Nowadays I call in whenever I'm that way.

I buy anything that's going - a bundle of asparagus or a bag of rich, dark cherries; a punnet of sweet strawberries or a dozen mahogany brown eggs from his high-stepping Maran hens.

All are so filled with flavour that you wonder whether the supermarket versions can be the same foods.

Occasionally, in summer, there might even be a pack of soft yellow butter, the sort you never see in stores.

Jonno has a house cow - a quiet, doe-eyed Jersey of advancing age.

She was on her fifth calf when he bought her and there have been four more since. She walks placidly round her paddock, more often than not with a calf in tow.

Meanwhile, next door to Jonno's little holding, is a commercial dairy farm. There must be at least 200 in the herd, all high-yielding black-andwhite Holsteins.

When they're grazing the field the other side of Jonno's hedge, it's like having an invading army camped outside. In a day or two they'll have stripped the turf bare and be waiting at the gate, baying for fresh pasture.

We stand and watch as they tear at the grass, compelled to fill the enormous udders that science and the cattle breeders have lumbered them with.

Though few are over five years old, their skin hangs loose from the bones.

Everything has been sacrificed to milk, and the instinct to feed offspring they're never allowed to keep.

These are the beasts that fill our daily milk cartons and yogurt pots.

This is the kind of herd that stocks the supermarket chill cabinets.

It is beasts similar to these that gave the world mad cow disease and the biggest outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease for decades.

Disease is the shadow that hangs permanently over herds like this.

So unhealthy and overworked are the cows that they're worn out after three or four years' milking. They survive as long as they do only because they are routinely dosed with antibiotics.

So from which side of Jonno's hedge would you rather get your food ?

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