I love a beautifully orchestrated entrée of beef or chicken, so willingly have I accepted my calling as an omnivore; I salivate at the thought of sushi and I gladly entertain the occasional indulgence in oysters fresh from the sea. While not pretending to be a full blown foodie I will unabashedly endorse indulging in a good meal. I’ve always been aware, however, of the myriad number of additives present in food along with the fat calories I’ve learned to dread like the plague – if not avoid.
I’m aware of the food industry’s almost maddening reliance on preservatives ranging from nitrites to benzoic acid by the food industry, the pervasive utilization of salt, fructose corn syrup in sodas and fruit drinks, the ubiquitous presence of artificial sweetners like Acesulfame and Aspartame in many diet foods; but a few months ago I asked myself: Do you really know where the meat you eat comes from?
This question became even more pertinent in March 2012 when ABC News reported on the use of ‘pink slime’ or ‘lean finely textured beef’ as a ‘meat filler’ in the USA. In essence, this product consists of lean beef carcass trimmings (including bits of cartilage and other connective tissues), not bad as it’s still technically meat. However, the treatment of this material with a heating process that liquefies the fat to enable the removal of any lean beef from the mass, and the subjection of this ‘lean beef’ to gaseous ammonia or citric acid to kill any bacteria which is (invariably) present is frightening. This ‘product’ has found its way into ground beef burgers which even if they contain up to 15% of ‘pink slime’ can be legally labelled 100% beef in the USA. But don’t think meat fillers are unique to beef, it has found useful acceptance in chicken processing as well. Yummy!
More recently there was the ‘horse meat’ scandal in Ireland and Britain, where if you’re unaware, large amounts of processed ‘beef’ products were found to include not just horse DNA, but pig DNA! There was one product tested which was 100% horse meat and more than 75% of the samples taken had ‘oink’ DNA mixed into the ‘meat’. While horse meat is culturally accepted in many countries from Europe to South America to Asia and provides a good source of protein their modern consumption is largely frowned upon. It is notable that Argentina and Brazil which form major sources of corned beef to the Jamaican market are significant horse meat producers. These details I’m sure have many vegans doing Reggae tinged I-told-you-so song and dance.
You may argue that these incidents are firmly based abroad and that in Jamaica we ‘know’ where our meat comes from…but do you really know what goes into making that chicken from the drive-thru you’ll wolf down for lunch, the succulent stewed fish you had for breakfast or the huge baked breast that’s being thought of for dinner? Yes, Jamaicans do eat a lot of chicken.
Well, the processing of chickens is just that-processing. It begins with the harvesting of chicks which are then shuttled as cargo to various growing houses in which they will be allotted 49 days to eat their way to an individual average slaughter weight of about 4.5 pounds. This dramatic increase in weight over this short period is targeted at the breasts and legs which though not accomplished through the use of hormones is achieved by selective breeding based upon growth rates and feed conversion. In these chickens the rapid growth rate results in flesh that grows faster than the bones; these bones may be so underdeveloped they struggle under the weight of these super-sized chickens. The simple act of walking to the feed/water station sees them struggling through blistered breasts and having to waddle through hundreds of pecking neighbours; and their own faeces. There is little wonder many of these birds are unhealthy and provide meat teaming with E.coli and other bacteria.
These chicken breasts and thighs which consumers seem to desire are so huge and flavourless you might as well chow down on the waxed cardboard in which they are shipped. But fear not, this hunk of meat is often rendered delectable with the injection or addition of texturizers, stabilizers, thickeners, citric acid, the ever present corn syrup, monosodium glutamate, good ol’ salt and phosphates among many other chemicals lovingly added in copious amounts. In short the food industry would have you believe that your fried chicken or the mystery-meat-chicken-nugget is chock full of wholesome goodness that they place pictures of smiling old men and happily frolicking birds on their products.
There are many of you reading this and wondering, why not just have fish? Let us. Farmed fish is by design more prone to the presence of contaminants such as industrial chemicals, agricultural run-off often rife with pesticides and heavy metals, and the chemicals contained the food fed to these animals. There are also permissibly higher levels of antibiotics allowed in some fish species, than in livestock; after all one sick fish can kill a whole pen. There are a myriad number of fish which can be farmed; however, Jamaicans have become familiar with Tilapia, which is a hardy species with high yields.
Male Tilapia is generally preferred because of higher yields and the uniformity in size. A Jamaican farming manual indicates the developmental stage at which male-steroid containing feed should be given to promote sex inversion; a process where female fish are converted to males with testicular tissue. There is also the recommended practice of starving fish for 24 hours prior to ‘harvesting’ which makes netting them easier, increases their chance of survival before processing and helps to maintain their quality during processing. No one wants bruised fillets for dinner I guess.
Despite a notable presence on our market, the low levels of Omega-3 makes eating them almost a waste of time; while exposing our systems to all the chemicals that go into producing them.
I love meat, but I’ve resorted to exploring meat from known/trusted sources and with my recent decision to actively trim my mid-section fast food outlets are avoided like the pox. I have become more acquainted with my stove and the pots my mother in her wisdom bequeathed to me. I don’t think it’s practical to completely avoid these products, pervasive as they are but I think the following are options to explore:
- o Purchase Fresh Meat – Processed meats are intended to have a longer shelf life containing harmful preservatives and other ingredients used to extend their shelf and maintain their colour and consistency
- o Avoid Fast Food – Take your pick, many do offer some “healthy” options, but many consist of processed foods, a salad sprinkled with manufactured bacon bits, processed cheese product and refined flour croutons must make the lettuce cry
- o Aim for Natural Flavours – season your own foods with herbs, garlic, onion, scallions etc., all of which we grow here in Jamaica
- Read Labels – look for ingredients that sound like food and not ingredients for paint. Many food additives are suspected of contributing to increased cancer risks, hyperactivity in children and decreased sperm counts. Also, look out for products with no added growth hormones, antibiotics or other drugs.
- Purchase Food you Recognize – Chickens don’t produce square breasts nor are they neon orange like the fried chicken being served at the work canteen
- Eat Regular Meals – keeping your stomach satisfied reduces the temptation to indulge in unhealthy food because of convenience proximity
- Eat In-season – incorporate foods that are in-season, out-of-season means they need to be preserved by whatever means necessary it seems
- Take Lunch/Snacks – if you provide your own trusted food there is less to be concerned about
- Go Organic/ Free-Range – Our grandparents had it figured with the avoidance of fertilizers, pesticides and raising animals in pens, trapped in their own excrement
- Avoid GMO – many foods are now genetically modified, try to eat locally grown foods that come from local seed banks (this is hard as many seeds are imported)
I have resolved to implement as much of these pointers as I can and for your own health I encourage you to do the same. After all, we are what we eat. Why not eat as healthily as possible despite the challenges.