Are You Eating Fake Foods Without Knowing It?

What do I mean by “fake food?” Perhaps fake food is best described by first defining what I mean by real food.

Suppose a young steer is put out to pasture. It grazes on the pasture’s grass, eating the food that its body is built for. It has access to clean water. Maybe there’s a grove of trees for the steer to use for shade when the sun gets too hot. It’s a calm, clean, low-key life for this steer. It’s not stimulated by growth hormones. It’s not fed antibiotics and would only be given antibiotics if it got a bacterial infection. Its urine and feces are naturally recycled into the land. It lives a good life until one day it is led quietly and gently into a low area filled with odorless carbon dioxide, and it painlessly passes out from lack of oxygen. Then, unconscious, it is killed. Butchering takes place in clean and sanitary conditions. The various cuts of meat go their separate ways and the leftovers (horns, hooves, hide, bones, intestines, etc.) are sold off.

One of the cuts of meat is a top sirloin steak. This steak is aged in ideal cool conditions for 21 days, long enough for the flavor of the meat to be enhanced by the actions of enzymes naturally present in the meat. This is also long enough for some of the intercellular collagen and other tough materials to soften, rendering the meat tender as well as flavorful.

You or I go the supermarket or butcher and buy this “organic, grass-fed, aged” steak. The meat has all the flavor it’s supposed to have, but without any chemicals, antibiotics, pesticides, fattening grains, or other unnatural additives—including water. Did you know many meats, especially pork products, are pumped full of water? Up to 30 percent of the weight of some hams is water, sold to you at many dollars per pound.

Our grass-fed steak has much more of healthful conjugated linoleic acid—a beneficial essential fatty acid—than ordinary beef. It tastes great. This is real food.

Fake food looks like the real thing, but it’s not. Because the steers are raised in confinement pens, they are routinely given antibiotics because they live amid deep pools of their own waste. The grains they are fed have been grown with pesticides and herbicides, chemicals that can pass into their bodies and lodge in their fat. These grains fatten up the animals, filling their tissues with hard fats that cause cardiovascular disease in humans. The meat is flushed into unnaturally weak growth by hormones. Slaughter is efficient, but not easy. Butchering is often quick and sometimes unsanitary. I know. I’ve seen it.

Back on the farm, that organic steer’s life and death have left no permanent scars or depleted, eroded soil. The steer may have eaten annual or perennial grasses nearly to the ground, but the grasses’ roots continue to hold the soil together during winter rains. All the animals’ wastes are sparsely spread in the pasture, and washed by rains into the soil where they fertilize next spring’s crop of fine, clean, green grass.

But back in the feedlot, the concentrated pools of fecal matter are washed into the groundwater where they foul wells, hyper-fertilize streams, ponds, and lakes, forcing the growth of clogging, oxygen-depleting algae, and causing the eutrophycation of the water. Fish die. Chemicals used in the feedlots wash into waterways, further damaging them. The feedlot is a stinking mess that is spread to the surrounding watershed. The conventional steak you buy looks real, but it’s not. It’s a commodity, processed using modern technology and much of that technology has unintended consequences that are detrimental to our health.

The bottom line is taste. Which steak do you think tastes best? Even if you couldn’t tell a difference, knowing how the steak came to be would enhance its flavor.

Now multiply these kinds of insights throughout our food supply. Compare how an organic potato, strawberry, or head of broccoli is raised with how they are grown conventionally. Be aware that researchers in both the U.K. and U.S. are finding major diminishment of mineral levels and declining levels of other nutrients in common vegetables grown conventionally. But not in organically-grown vegetables. One scientist at UC Davis did a 10-year study and reported, in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, that organic vegetables contained up to 30 percent more phytochemicals than conventional vegetables. Phytochemicals is a scientific term for natural nutrients created by plants within their own tissues. They are the goodies that are so good for us.

Published on: September 27, 2010
About the Author
Photo of Jeff Cox

Jeff Cox is the author of 19 books on food, wine, and gardening from the organic perspective, including the James Beard Foundation-nominated "The Organic Cook's Bible.". He's the former managing editor of Organic Gardening magazine and has hosted two TV series on gardening, Your Organic Garden on PBS and Grow It! on HGTV.

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