Food is what we choose to eat. It may be any substance which can reasonably be considered edible. It may or may not have nutritional value; it may be healthful or harmful. Anything we can put into our mouths, swallow, and digest is food. Over the past century, the range of food available to the average American has increased significantly. As the country has shifted from a rural, agricultural economy with significant numbers of people engaging in subsistence farming to a modern industrial superpower, nearly everything we eat has become a “food product” rather than simply food. Food products are foods which are available to be bought and sold— this is to say, nearly everything we eat is a food product rather than simply a food. An ear of corn at a farmer’s market is a food product and so is cheese in an aerosol can. As participants in a full-scale capitalist society, it is rare for someone to take any part in the production of their own food. We often unknowingly/unwillingly ingest substances that don’t seem like “food,” like preservatives, antibiotics, pesticides, and hormones. This is the price we pay for the conveniences that a consumer society afford us.
At this point in my life, I do not have the time, energy, or resources to plan my consumer choices around ethical and environmental concerns. I recognize that the long distance transportation of food products has a number of consequences including greenhouse gas emissions from transport vehicles, diminished freshness of products, and all sorts of nasty chemical additives and treatments which are likely to have long term health effects. In addition, I am aware of the complex and disturbing history of food production and corporate colonialism. Probably many of the corporations which supply my food are evil and don’t care if they kill me. I have to choose my battles and this is one is not mine.
I find the nutritional information labels applied to most food products to be interesting and useful, however it is important to be aware of their caveats. Catch-all terms like “natural flavorings” “artificial flavorings” various dyes, unpronounceable chemicals, and euphemisms can mask potentially harmful or controversial ingredients in a product. Misleading measurements, unreasonable serving size/servings per container, inaccuracies in numbers, assumptions based on “average person”‘s nutritional needs all detract from the benefits of nutrition facts labels. They’re a start.
Marketing terms like “natural/all natural/organic” are no more than marketing terms. While there are certain loosely enforced standards for each designation, the end result is that these terms are somewhat meaningless. The letter and spirit of these regulations are separate, and a corporation has a fiduciary responsibility to pick the more cost-effective option.
GMO’s are a complicated question. I am not a scientist and do not have the education necessary to make decisions about the safety of genetically modified organisms. However, blanket assumptions saying that “GMO’s are unsafe” come across as uninformed and extreme. I do not believe food (or organisms in general) become inherently tainted by having their genes modified. Monsanto has been historically at fault in a variety of environmental and health disasters, they probably don’t deserve another chance at making our food. That said, genetically modified agricultural products have a tremendous potential to increase crop yields, which may go a long way towards mitigating food shortages in the developing world. For example, “golden rice” has been genetically modified to contain more Vitamin A. We should not be afraid of GMO as a concept; we should be afraid of how profitable they are.
Long term health effects are often the price we pay for convenience. Many of our plastic products, which we frequently use to carry water, are likely to leach endocrine-disrupting chemicals. These may also enter our food and water through other sources. They have been found to cause all sorts of nasty problems, including learning disabilities. We don’t need plastic water bottles, but we want them, and this is how we pay for them. Mutagens, which cause mutations and abnormal cell reproduction (including cancer), may also enter our food and water supply through the containers we put them in as well as chemical additives.