In the conversation on healthy eating, people talk about vitamins, minerals, protein, sodium, cholesterol, fat, food groups, serving sizes, calories, grams, whole foods, natural foods and, controversially as of late, organic foods. But what about taste? Taste is often marginalized or overlooked as a factor in healthy eating.
“The beliefs that have guided the American way of eating,” Michael Pollan writes, are summed up by Canadian historian Harvey Levenstein: “…that taste is not a true guide to what should be eaten; that one should not simply eat what one enjoys; that the important components of food cannot be seen or tasted, but are discernible only in scientific laboratories; and that experimental science has produced rules of nutrition that will prevent illness and encourage longevity.”
Judging by the state of our public health, Americans might consider changing their ways. Taste is in fact a good guide to what should be eaten and we should enjoy what we eat. Composing a healthy diet, in short, can be as simple as choosing foods that taste good.
That’s because Nature has figured it out for us, and all we have to do is take notice. Foods found in nature taste best when ripe, and when ripe they’re loaded with nutrients. The system of industrial agriculture that we have imposed on nature, however, has eroded the quality of the foods grown in our fields and orchards, so that they neither taste the way they should nor are as nutritious. Many Americans have only ever known industrial tomatoes, broccoli and strawberries; it’s no wonder they avoid them. At the same time we’re barraged by processed food products that deliver hits of sugar, sodium and fat in tidy, convenient packages.
“For the last 50 or more years,” Tomatoland author Barry Estabrook explains in an NPR interview, “tomato breeders have concentrated essentially on one thing and that is yield. They also want those fruits to be able to stand up to being harvested, packed, artificially turned orange [with ethylene gas] and then shipped away and still be holding together in the supermarket a week or 10 days later.”
The same could be said to describe the handling of just about any variety of industrial produce. Growers place a premium on yield and durability at the expense of flavor. As one Florida farmer told Estabrook, “I don’t get paid a single cent for flavor. I get paid for weight. I don’t know of any supermarket shopper who tastes her tomatoes before she puts them in her shopping cart.” As a result the tasteless tomato has become the standard of supermarkets across the country.
As the flavor of our fruits and vegetables has declined, so, too, has their nutritional value. In 2007 The Organic Center published a report that placed part of the blame for this development on conventional farming practices. The report, called “Still No Free Lunch: Nutrient levels in U.S. food supply eroded by pursuit of high yields,” refers to data showing a decline in nutrient levels from studies where researchers grew modern crop varieties side-by-side with historic, lower-yielding cultivars and found that the modern varieties have significantly lower levels of certain vitamins and minerals.
In order to cultivate the best flavor in our foods, best practices have to be observed in growing them. In the 1970s, Kim Severson writes in a recent New York Times article, Alice Waters worked with local, small-scale, organic farmers “who were picking their fruits and vegetables when they were ripe and were growing varieties designed for flavor, not shipping and storage.” And it’s the flavor, Ms. Waters points out, that’s “going to get us to eat seven portions of fruits and vegetables a day.”
Flavor is indeed a significant influence on our eating habits, so we might consider advancing it as a cause in itself among the other causes of the food movement. By working to restore flavor to our vegetables, fruits and grains, by supporting farmers who grow for taste and by re-educating ourselves and others about how delicious fresh, healthy food can be, we may yet change the way Americans eat.
Photo Credit: mnapoleon