Food Values

Regardless of your opinion on the state of our food systems, having options and making informed decisions is always good in my world. Years ago I started questioning every bite of food I put in my mouth, in some very specific ways: notably, with the goal of eliminating sugar and reducing carbs.

Over the years my vision has changed a bit. New information about artificial sweeteners and insulin-reaction was released, I became a certified nutritionist and learned to cook even more, I was having trouble sticking to my choices without becoming a hermit, and I found myself questioning a lot of my decisions. I really couldn't understand how using a chemical that is known to cause cancer and obesity is somehow better than a potato, a whole food grown in the ground and eaten with skin intact for maximum nutrition.

So now, I am trying to define my food values. A lot of this relates back to the hierarchy of food needs, though I'm not ready to prioritize them. In no particular order, here's a list of things I think about when trying to make BETTER food choices:
  • The Goal: BETTER food choices. Better than before, better than my childhood, better than the norm, better than the alternative. Mostly this presents as "I want ____. [why?...] Well, a better option than that is _____." EX: I want McDonald's. I'm hungry right now and I don't have time to wait to get home and cook something before I get too sick. Well, a better option than that is Burgerville because it's at least local/less processed ingredients (whenever possible) and a local business. And a better option than that is grabbing a sandwich at the grocery store and taking it home to put on my own mayo and mustard. But if I can't wait until I get home, at least Chipotle has local, natural/organic ingredients that are more reliably better than even Burgerville, and a lot less greasy with fewer refined carbs." EX2: I want ice cream. It's hot and I want something sweet and cool. Well, frozen yogurt has less fat but more sugar. Popsicles have the same amount of sugar but even less fat. Ooh, I could make a smoothie! That has no [added] sugar, real fruit, less fat than ice cream, and is home-made (though arguably not cheaper).
  • Timing: If I need to eat RIGHT NOW, a lot of Give-A-Damn gets busted. Anything that is better than my initial idea is a winner. And ANYTHING is better than "not eating."Actually, that's not true. Candy and sugary treats are worse than not eating.
  • Price vs Value: Let's face it, I have very little income and Mr. Moon only has so much himself. In a perfect world, I would just pay whatever it costs to get the best options for every other variable here. I have to balance price in the equation, but to SOME degree "food just costs what it costs." EX: Refined-flour (whether that's wheat, corn, rice, etc.) spaghetti noodles are 58cents per pound, but whole wheat noodles are 85cents per pound. If I reject the notion that refined-flour spaghetti noodles are food, then the 58c/lb isn't a "deal" and now I just worry about getting the best deal I can on whole wheat noodles.
  • Location: How far do I have to drive to get the food? Where did the food come from? Will I lose any extra register-savings by spending it on gas to pick it up? EX: I'll take California strawberries over Florida while I live in Washington, but the reverse is true when I am in Michigan (plus, Florida strawberries taste better). I'll take Washington/Oregon strawberries from a local farmer over both. Fred Meyer is right outside our subdivision, but I'll drive an extra two miles to get to Chuck's and get better prices, better quality, better service, and support a local business. 
  • Quality: How long will the produce last when I get it home? What's the likelihood I'm eating non-food pesticides and herbicides? A lot of this question is an umbrella over other ones, EX: the fact is that when other factors don't intervene I will prefer organic foods over non-organic, but certified isn't necessary; like I'll take the local dairy farmer's non-certified-but-still-organic milk over Horizon brand. And I'll take conventional pasteurized milk over organic super-duper-ultra pasteurized because that stuff tastes like someone pissed in my cereal and organic or not, that is not food.
  • Nutrition: When faced with an option that will work flavor-wise, but has different nutritional values, I'll take the one that's the best bang for my buck. EX: Potatoes, despite being a whole food grown in the ground, are still not as nutritionally dense as cauliflower which will impact blood sugar less than potatoes will. So I'll pick Cauliflower over Potatoes sometimes, thus reducing my starch intake. I see brown rice, potatoes, and pasta as the same carby-entity, though potatoes (not french fries or hashbrowns or the like) are less processed and take up a LOT less land/labor to grow one serving. 
  • Environmental Impact: This is NOT a major factor in my food choices. I think that in a perfect world it would be, though. As I mentioned in the last bullet, it can be a factor when all other factors have not resulted in a clear decision, but I think register-price and value-to-my-pocket-and-nutrition trump environmental impact. This falls under that "instrumental food" section on that hierarchy of needs chart. When everything else is met, then this might be a concern. 
Sometimes I find myself looking at a plate or a selection of items and having to force my brain to recognize it as food. Boxes of Pasta-roni are a common example--I see the box, I can read it, but it takes a conscious effort to recognize that as "food." As opposed to a can of tomatoes which, despite not being able to see the contents in either case, I do recognize as "food" that could be consumed. I noticed this phenomena shortly after going low carb in 2006, but the extent has surely grown since then. It's no different than someone who doesn't recognize a meal as a MEAL unless there's meat in it (or if they know there isn't meat in it--since there are a lot of vegetarian meals that meat-eaters like if they just don't think about it)--in some cases, unless bread is an accompaniment. It takes time to adapt your brain to that concept, when you're trying to consciously change it.

I think that sometimes I muddle up the hierarchy explanation, and then remember that after moving 2400 miles away from home and with no job, suddenly Pizza Hut with their high-fructose-corn-syrup sauce and high-carb pizza crust didn't seem so deplorable when someone else was buying.I would add a level to that hierarchy though: If "Instrumental Food" is worrying mostly about nutrition and how a food affects your quality of life (because how to pay for it and how it tastes are taken care of and just not "concerns" anymore), one step above that is how that food affects long-term environmental impacts. I'm definitely not there yet.
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What are your family's food values? Do you value nutrition over price, in all things? Worry more about the cost at the register than the long-term health effects? Do you see yourself at a certain level on that hierarchy of needs, or think that it's complete bull?

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