Getting a read on your food

It’s high picnic time. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, blazing through the Fourth of July and every weekend before and after, the grills are on, the grillmasters are loaded for burger, and the catsup is running. These are the glory days of dining.

What could be better?

When you stop and think about it (who doesn’t?), a lot could be better, and our picnics are just the start of it. Never has there been so much food available to Americans in such a depth and breadth of varieties to feed every lifestyle. We have choices to make every day. Carnivores, vegetarians, omnivores, and vegans face jam-packed shelves of cookbooks, fresh foods, prepared foods, genetically modified, organic, canned, frozen, locally grown, imported, processed, unprocessed, raw, and cooked-to-a-pulp foods. I think we can all agree that much of it isn’t really food. Why, then, do so many Americans keep choosing it?

These days, the biggest threat to our health is probably food that is filled with chemicals, sweetened with man-made compounds, and genetically modified. Unfortunately, that covers most of what is available. I’m not a scientist or a nutritionist, so what qualifies me to make statements about the food-ness of food? This consumer reads labels and researches the effects of ingredients on my body; that gives me every right to learn about what I’m eating and to share what I’ve learned.

For years, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has cropped up on the ingredients lists of likely and unlikely foods. A mixture of corn kernels and three enzymes with long Latin names, HFCS is incredibly cheap to manufacture but incredibly costly to anyone who wants to eat for good health. There are several reasons for that: it slows the body’s production of leptin, a hormone that signals fullness and tells you to stop eating; consumption of HFCS is implicated in liver scarring, fibrosis, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (look up the 2010 Duke University Medical School study); and it is made from genetically modified corn.

It’s hard to find packaged foods without it. Take the summer picnic; HFCS is in the buns, catsup, baked beans, sweet pickles, brownies, and berry pie. It’s even in the hot dogs! (Who decided we needed meat to be sweet?) Don’t even get me started on Thanksgiving dinner.

It is possible to find packaged foods without it, but it’s hard. Of course, eating home-cooked vegetables, fresh fruits, and meat from our local farms is the best option.

Unfortunately, scarcity of non-genetically modified foods is becoming an even bigger problem. Undoubtedly, there will be years’ worth of bickering between those who worry about the effects of tampering with nature to produce virus-resistant crops and meat animals and those who represent the stakeholders in designer food industries, such as agribusinesses and biochemical companies. One criticism of genetic modification is that it fosters a vicious cycle of bug-resistant plants that lead to evolution of “super bugs,” which of course leads to spraying with increasingly deadly pesticides. Some corns are genetically modified to make insects blow up when they eat it. What happens to us when we eat this corn and its many derivatives? Our food industry and government regulatory apparatus alike claim such foods are safe. Why, then, have more than 60 countries banned them? The broadly published statistic claiming that 80 percent of our food is modified encompasses many “hidden” items – the strange-sounding list of chemicals that are made from modified beans and grains and laid out on every can, box, and shrink-wrapped package for your reading pleasure.

Gardeners may not be aware that even seeds are modified. If you want nature’s real deal, you have to plant beyond the label “organic,” which may or may not be modified. A simple Internet search will help prospective gardeners find desired brands.

Fortunately, we are in the season of crop abundance and Saturday markets. Local farmers are eager to sell their fruits, vegetables, and meats from their farms, at the market, or in both venues. To please the vegetarians in my family, I gravitate toward the organic produce booths. While I can’t be sure of the genetic status of fresh fruits and vegetables, I can vouch for the absence of unnatural sweeteners. To please my carnivores, I patronize the fresh meat booths, happy that these local farmers are working so hard to bring good food to my family’s table.

So eat well, everyone. Look at those labels. Make your dollars talk through your purchases, and if you feel bold, call or e-mail the many companies that are using HFCS and tell them what you will and will not buy. I did just that when I couldn’t understand why I wanted sweet salmon and sweet tomato soup. My response was a verbal “thank you for your call” and an ironic batch of coupons for more of the same.

As for genetic food modification, stay tuned. The war is just beginning.

Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to