(Chris and the Chow Locally gang will write a bi-weekly column on eating, living, playing and everything else local. Be sure to say hi to them on Saturdays at the market.)
I have a particular obsession with Mini-Wheats. Tasty though they are, it’s not the flavor that transfixes me. Rather, the variety of flavors available in grocery stores is what astounds. There are no fewer than ten types of Mini-Wheats available to those who wonder just how many ways a little wheat biscuit can be creatively sweetened.
If you don’t find this all that amazing, there’s more. Mini-Wheats, as their eponymous name suggests, should be of a certain size: mini. This, however, is not entirely the case. In fact, if you weren’t entirely happy with the mini-ness of your Mini-Wheats, you can buy “Little Bites” Mini-Wheats. And don’t feel excluded, those of you with mouths of greater capacity, because Kellogg’s also offers, quite oxymoronically, “Big Bite” Mini-Wheats.
So now we have lots of flavors of Mini-Wheats, and oddly enough we have a few different sizes, too. I have to ask: do we really need this much variety in our Mini-Wheats offerings? I would say no. I don’t believe the market for tasty cereals would be all that affected if we’d limited our ‘Wheats offerings to five, say, or even three. I feel fairly certain there isn’t anyone out there now thinking, “How is it possible, in this day and age, that we don’t have Raspberry Truffle-Vanilla Creme-Almond Mini-Wheats? What is it with this limited choice??”
Why the great variety? The fact is, the food industry makes much of its money on innovation. If companies aren’t pumping out new food products at a constant rate, they have a pretty hard time remaining fresh in the minds of consumers. That makes it harder to maintain their margins and bring in revenue.
Unfortunately, this means our food environment is constantly inundated with new food products–the vast majority of which are processed. Now I’ll admit, it’s nice to have variety, and it’s exciting to try new flavors of things. But, lost in the flood of food novelty are the healthiest whole foods that, from a marketing perspective, are quite unexciting. And as companies constantly drive consumer interest to their newest, processed, packaged goodies, it becomes ever easier for consumers to build a diet based almost entirely on processed foods. Most of the time, that happens at the exclusion of unprocessed fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
This isn’t the recipe for healthy eating. Every bit of nutrition science, conducted here and abroad, suggests maintaining a diet high in unprocessed or minimally processed whole foods. Our food “innovations” don’t reflect that sound, time-honored, advice.
Enter the newfound interest in local foods, a movement that makes fruits and vegetables interesting again. If you wonder why so many public health advocates, researchers, and recently, politicians, have been so supportive of the movement, it’s because the excitement about local foods is really excitement about whole, healthy foods.
There are lots of other good reasons to be excited, as well. It’s not just local produce you’re buying; it’s produce from a farmer you get to meet, or at least learn about. It’s not just nutritious food you’re buying; it’s a purchase that helps support local agriculture, your local economy, and a diversified food system. And if you’re buying locally, you’re probably buying foods that supplant processed products you might otherwise have bought at the grocery store.
Fruits and vegetables, quite excitingly, are back on the food scene. And the movement to ‘go local’ is helping propel them there. This column, new for the Downtown Phoenix Journal, will explore this and other aspects of the local food movement. You’ll find articles on what local foods can mean for health, for the environment, and for the economy. You’ll get a chance to learn about some of the nutrition science behind food and health. And, you’ll get a chance to learn about who is involved in producing and selling local foods, and how and why they do it.