By Robert Fochler
Those of us living in the Asheville area are blessed to be surrounded by an abundance of options for healthy living. An area where themes like BUY LOCAL, MOUNTAIN-GROWN, SUSTAINABLE and ORGANIC are more than ideas. They are vibrantly manifested by a network of earth-friendly people, companies, groups and organizations.
Asheville offers the health-conscious consumer a host of family-farm-to-table venues supported by a consciousness of sustainable and organic practices. But that same consciousness of integrity is seriously altered when it comes to offerings from outside the local territory. The challenged economy, combined with a hectic, rapid-paced lifestyle of the health-conscious consumer tends to threaten otherwise savvy choices. This can easily lead, over time, to a deterioration of a healthy, vital population. The economic downturn has challenged health food stores to the max, sometimes bringing products and practices that are anything but healthy. I call the resulting choices “corporate food.”
A few examples are in order. A close friend, mother of an 8-year-old, was surprised when I pointed out that the “Artisan Whole Wheat” bread she was buying at her favorite health food store not only had toxic ingredients, it did not contain whole wheat! She had not examined the labeled ingredients, assuming that because she was in a health food store her choice was a HEALTHY one. The store had its own bakery and had begun a practice of using “enriched flour.” More on that later.
A second example. A spot check at one local health food store showed that of the over 35 items displayed in the produce department, only 2 were local. Zucchini was being shipped cross-country from Oregon and this was in the middle of Zuke season! I picked up a tomato in the same season which had a sticker “grown in Canada.” The lesson? Just because you are in a health food store, you may not assume all offerings are HEALTHY ones.
Times have changed, drastically. Those of you old enough to remember Woodstock will be aware of the history of the HEALTH FOOD movement, which began in the early 1970’s. Younger consumers may benefit from a little history. The term health food came into widespread use at that time. It denoted a concept around a growing concern of toxic pollutants in food. These included preservatives, non-organic fertilizers, pesticides and synthetic vitamins and minerals made in the laboratory. These were seen as agents that kill life. Canned, boxed and processed foods and devitalized enriched white flour were devalued.
The health food movement became a major movement, resulting in a proliferation of books about healthy foods and diets. The movement created a new type of grocery store, the Health Food Store. This new type of store attracted devotees in droves, both customer and employee. Over time the movement became more sophisticated, eschewing genetically modified foods (GMOs), irradiation and long-distance distribution. The BUY LOCAL movement was born.
Over the decades, mainstream food producers began hopping on the health food bandwagon, using terms like “natural” in their marketing and on labels even when the product contained artificial ingredients. This became the accepted norm, and today some consumers who want “healthy” food actually accept that “natural” does, in fact, mean natural. This is most certainly not true.
The obfuscation increased with a “look the other way” mentality of the FDA and the FTC, the two government agencies charged with watchdog missions in the arena of healthy food labeling and advertising. Dill pickles, for example, did not need to contain dill. But when the H J Heinz company, owned then by Senator Heinz, asked these agencies to “look the other way”, they did more than that. They began to enforce legislation that made it a crime to sell ketchup unless the ingredients were exactly like those in the Heinz product.
With the growing popularity of healthy foods, single-ownership stores were widely expanded and eventually bought out by ever larger, corporate-like entities. The corporate model, which tended to emphasize quantity over quality, began to diminish sustainable, local and organic practices. With many new shoppers embracing the healthy food movement, choices began to be made by both buyer and seller that were not really healthy. The larger corporate-style organization employed people who were not really grounded in fundamentally healthy protocols and out of touch with local customs and desires.
Back to a case in point, the enriched white flour in the Artisan Whole Wheat loaf. The health food movement, early on, produced many new healthy baking protocols. These included minimal milling, doing away with the insane procedure of removing the wheat germ (which contains the natural vitamins and minerals) and bran (which gives needed fiber), then bromating and bleaching the flour. Highly milled flour (aka white flour) acts like glue in the gastrointestinal system and is a major factor in many GI diseases. The process in vogue for many decades had been to strip away the 11 naturally occurring vitamins and minerals, then adding synthetic chemicals that represent four vitamins and minerals. The end product, a white, devitalized flour, was called “enriched flour.” This product began recently to be used in baked goods at health food stores in the Asheville area. It is also sold in bags on the shelves of the stores.
The baking industry in general, seems to have reverted to the unhealthy practice of using enriched white flour. Check the ingredients in some of the muffins and cookies made in the bakery department of these food stores. On a personal note, I can no longer visit two of my favorite local restaurants. I discovered they are baking with enriched flour. In addition, the industry in general seems to have created two new flour designations that do nothing to inform the consumer of the milling process. These are “bread flour” and “wheat flour.” The health food movement had created two new designations: whole wheat flour, and whole wheat pastry flour. The former has nothing removed in the milling process, while the latter receives slightly more milling and sifting and is left with 70 percent of the original natural fiber, vitamins and minerals. Non-organic and synthetic ingredients are life-killing agents. Thank Goddess for the many local bakers! Plus, a new grain-refining industry is in full swing in the area, using LOCAL grain to make HEALTHY and vital flour. At least one local bakery/restaurant is using this product in their baked goods. By the way, my sources tell me that “bread flour” is a highly-milled white flour that has a high gluten/protein content.
To give the industry some credit, these changes were probably made because of consumer concern of the high gluten content of whole wheat flour.
I have created a blog-based forum for consumers in the Asheville area to get updated information and communicate their concern on the Asheville NOT-SO-HEALTHY food store practices. I will forward these concerns to the appropriate people. Go to organicunionavl.wordpress.com and become a member of this local watchdog organization.
On the horizon, the newly-publicized health food market set to open this summer in the Biltmore Station area gives this writer some hope that we can be sure that our highly valued themes of LOCAL, MOUNTAINGROWN, SUSTAINABLE, ORGANIC and truly NATURAL will be delivered as promised.
Be awake, aware and be HEALTHY, my friends. Ask questions and make comments as you shop.
Robert Fochler is a semi-retired radio broadcaster and Chamber of Commerce executive who has been walking the HEALTHY FOOD path for 35 years.