A Conversation with Mother Nature

Lycopene in tomatoes can now be used in dyes for processed meat.
Lycopene in tomatoes can now be used in dyes for processed meat.

The FDA recently approved the use of lycopene from tomatoes as a more “natural” replacement for red dye in processed meat. Pepperoni on pizza, that quick weeknight dinner of hotdogs, and our daily turkey or ham sandwich all contain a  cocktail of substances like meat glue, nitrites, and dyes. They’ve got to be dyed, or else they will turn a “food-safe” but unappetizing grey color when exposed to light and air. In the age of information access let us not celebrate when we find out about these food industry “successes” and “improvements.”  Instead let’s rethink eating “food” that needs major structural, chemical, or nutritional improvement.

The way we ask our bodies to accept the food products we feed it (and remain healthy) reminds me of a preteen in an argument with Mother Nature. We discover that the human body needs certain nutrients to live, and that we can extract, synthesize or add those nutrients to any number of foods. And we go, “ketchup has the same nutritional content as a vegetable, so THERE!  I ate a bunch of ketchup, now I HAVE to be healthy!”

Nature’s all like, “Puh-lease.  You just discovered that the body needs these nutrients two seconds ago. Did it not occur to you that there might be other things you don’t know about how the body works?”

“No, no, no–I definitely need vitamins and minerals, so I’m taking these supplements to be healthy.”

Mother Nature goes, “SMH. I already put what you need in the food. In the right amounts. With countless other unnamed nutrients that you also need. Whoa whoa whoa!  How much are you taking of those vitamins and minerals?  Ever hear of too much of a good thing?  3,000-10,000% of your daily requirement (a range typical of those little bottles of pills) can definitely be detrimental and even toxic. The body can’t get rid of excesses of some of these nutrients, and here you are, taking way too much. It’s in the food.”

“But I need protein to be healthy. I eat lots of protein, so I should be healthy!”

“Oh, dear. May I remind you that huge, powerful mammals like the elephant are herbivorous and have much stronger muscles and bigger bones than you?  They’re getting all the nutrients they need in the right amounts. Have you even ever heard of a case of protein deficiency?  It’s called ‘quashiorkor.’ That’s what I thought. Now what about heart disease, diabetes, or cancer?  These are diseases of nutritional excess. Protein grows our muscles, sure, but it also causes many other things in the body to grow–including cancer. Thank god you’ve got two kidneys, because all of that excess protein you’re eating is taxing the hell out of them. Most people will decrease their kidney function by 30% due to this excess; which is not bad, unless you’re also diabetic in which case it can be deadly.”

We need to ask ourselves why we are fighting our bodies like this when it’s clear we all want the same thing: to be as healthy as possible for as long as possible. These seem to me to be the right conditions for happiness.

It makes beautiful sense that the perfect food for our bodies comes from the world from which we sprang: not from

I prefer eating foods that are naturally red, like tomatoes: big and small!
I prefer eating foods that are naturally red, like tomatoes: big and small!

within factory walls.  So while industry celebrates the approval of lycopene as a replacement for red #40 and bug-derived carmine in jerky, deli meats, and sausages, let’s take this moment to say, “I’m not going to eat that, and I’m not going to feed it to my children.”  How else can we expect to be healthy?  Let all of our scientific discoveries about the body and nutrition serve to humble us to the complex majesty of creation or evolution. If we continue to wave every new found factoid in the face of Mother Nature–we might get grounded.

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