Formerly Known As Food is a stimulating read about, as its subtitle puts it, How the Industrial Food System Is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture. Kristin Lawless, a Brooklyn nutrition expert and journalist, draws on a decade of research. Her book, endorsed by former New York Times columnist Mark Bittman and American environmental activist Laurie David, argues that the questionable chemicals Big Ag and Big Food put into our food are increasing the incidence of dangerous health conditions like fatty liver. Lawless spoke with Maclean’s about social engineering, feminism, meal-kit delivery services and the case for animal fats.
Q: “Basic cooking skills are a virtue as vital to growing up as learning to wipe one’s own ass,” Anthony Bourdain once said. “There are few things more important and integral. As citizens of the world, we should be able to feed ourselves fairly competently, and hopefully a few others.” What’s your response?
A: I couldn’t agree more. The sad fact is that many people no longer know how to cook. Too many of us grow up in households where no one ever cooks, learning the skills to cook basic whole food is vital to our health and so much more. When I was old enough to hold a knife, I was helping to prepare the family meal. The simple act of cooking your own food is something we can all incorporate into our lives, with profound benefit. Bourdain’s success and the amount of love people have for him and his work shows the value of bringing people together around a shared meal. Bourdain showed us all the authentic connections that are created through exploring food and food cultures. I think what the industrial food system has done, is allow us to forget about the importance and interconnection of food, health, cultural traditions, and cooking. But when we forget, we lose something vital about our human-ness and our connections to each other.
Q: What’s your response to critics who say that it’s anti-feminist to advocate that women (and men) need to cook a lot more?
This thinking stems from the idea that women will achieve liberation and equality solely through work done outside of the home. In the book, I highlight the writings and work of Selma James, the founder of the Wages for Housework Campaign. As women left the home for work, the industrial food system was happy to step in and provide convenience foods and fast foods as replacements for home cooking—after all someone has to provide the food. I’m not clear on how there is anything feminist about letting corporations take over such a vital component of our lives as food production.
Q: There is quality information on the Internet about preparing your own quality food, yet many people are resorting to meal-kit delivery services.
A: I am not a fan of these services. If you can put a meal together based on the raw ingredients in those kits it means that you have basic cooking skills, so why not just go grocery shopping for ingredients based on recipes you want to use? To me, the biggest issue with these services is the amount of waste they generate. Have you seen how they package things? Sea creatures are dying because of the amount of plastic waste in our oceans and we can’t manage to chop our own garlic?
Q: What do you hope your book accomplishes?
A: I hope the book alerts the public to just how drastically our foods have changed under the influence of Big Food and Big Ag and what this means for our health. After a decade of counselling a wide range of people on nutrition and food, I can tell you that nearly everyone I worked with was misled and misguided about what to eat. It cuts across all social demographics. But when you do understand how to eat well—which is so critical to your overall health and well-being—it is incredibly empowering. More broadly, we need to re-localize our food economies and get involved in food production in our communities. And we also need to demand policy change from our lawmakers. I end the book with a “New Food Movement Manifesto” and call for things like federal paid parental leave, a universal basic income, and nutrition and cooking education in all public schools.
Q: What might challenge readers?
A: My critique of the current food movement. Shopping advice to “buy organic” or shop at your local farmer’s market does nothing to change the fact that most of our food is completely controlled by corporations or that the regulatory agencies are not doing their jobs to protect our food supply. They do nothing to help the vast majority of people who are stuck eating the crappy processed foods full of potentially harmful chemicals.
Q: How about your take on gluten? I’m of the school that for non-celiacs, it’s OK if properly fermented/broken down.
A: I love bread and I eat it regularly. I’m partial to whole wheat sourdough varieties and agree that the way the bread is made is crucial to whether or not it is healthful. It goes back to the Whole Egg Theory. There is a vast difference between your regular supermarket, sliced loaf with a huge list of ingredients and a sourdough loaf that should only have about three ingredients: whole wheat, sourdough starter, salt.
Q: Is “vegan cheese” cheese? Michael Pollan says, “I think the word cheese should be saved for the products of milks and bacteria, and I do think the same with bacon made out of soy—we should let them come up with their own name for that stuff. It’s a poor imitation.”
A: I agree it is not cheese and actually I don’t even think it’s food.
Q: Given it’s chock full of emulsifiers, is “vegan meat” healthy?
A: It is definitely not healthy. And honestly, I have no idea why people would eat that. If you’re a vegan, then eat the whole foods that are naturally vegan.
Q: Is eating ethical meat morally sound? I reckon your uncle Ben had a point: “Animal fats are the best thing in the world for you.”
A: I don’t know that you can say any meat-eating is ethical or morally sound from a purely philosophical perspective if you agree that animals are sentient beings, which I believe they are. I was a vegetarian for 15 years because of this belief. That said, now I do eat meat and believe that truly humanely raised animals that had a humane life and death are part of a healthy diet. I don’t eat industrially produced meat, dairy, eggs, fish or any other animal product. If you know what goes on in these industrial farms, I don’t see how you can. My younger sister calls it “torture meat.” It’s harsh but it’s true. I definitely agree with my uncle Ben when he said, “Animal fats are the best thing in the world for you.” There’s plenty of solid scientific research to back up that statement. We eat a lot of butter in our house.
Q: You write that stigmatizing people who are overweight or obese “is one of the last prejudices considered acceptable” and goes against emerging research about metabolism and endocrinology. Will this change?
A: For this to change, people need to understand the nature of our food and health crises, which means, number one, actually understanding some of the fundamentals of nutrition that have been completely obscured by the agendas of Big Food companies. There are chemicals in our food that are causing weight gain regardless of caloric intake, for example. Once you become obese your whole metabolic function changes in such a way that it becomes increasingly difficult to lose weight.
Q: Dieting advice is so contradictory and confusing. What do you recommend?
A: Follow the idea of my Whole Egg Theory. Eat only whole foods. An egg, butter, whole-milk yogurt, broccoli, an apple, a steak, roasted chicken, etc. If you eat them to the exclusion of all the processed and crappy foods that fill the majority of the space at grocery stores, you will be healthier for it. If you can buy organic that’s better; if you can get sustainably produced animal products that are pasture-based, even better. We need to address the inequality behind why most people can’t access these kinds of foods.
Q: You make a good point that at the height of Occupy Wall Street, you were surrounded by self-satisfied “radical” occupiers consuming McDonald’s vegan oatmeal, and Coke. Isn’t that depressing?
A: I definitely found it discouraging, but it just goes to show how we often overlook the political importance of food. If you oppose the corporate influence over our democratic institutions, then you should also oppose the corporate control of our food supply. Big Food companies, and Big Drink, have been masterful at convincing the public that your right to buy their unhealthy products is akin to political freedom and actually represents some sort of patriotic duty.
Q: You write that 10 companies control food and beverages.
A: Just like in every other industry, corporate consolidation is a major issue, and it threatens the very foundations of our democracy. Especially when it comes to our food supply, these companies have no incentive other than profit—that’s a dangerous thing when you are talking about something as vital as our food.
Q: What are the seven foods that are always in your house?
A: Eggs, bread, butter, coffee, cream, seasonal fruit and—I know this is running joke—but seriously, we always have kale in the fridge.
Q: Anything else you hope people might take away from Formerly Known as Food?
A: I hope people will be inspired to get politically engaged with our food system. We need to organize and advocate for policy that will hold the Big Food and Big Ag companies accountable for what they are doing to our food, our environment and our health. We’ve become so disconnected from our food supply, letting corporations take over this fundamental aspect of our lives. Why did we let this happen? We need to be involved with our own food production at least to some degree—you can learn to cook, plant a garden or join or create a food co-operative in your community.
This dialogue has been edited for length and clarity.