Jean Barker

America's freakish food

2013-08-13 09:24

Jean Barker

America's food tastes delicious, but is it going to kill me, or just mutate me?

But when it comes to food, as with everything, American success is full of contradictions, and every shining coin has its greasy flipside.

When I first arrived, at Atlanta airport, I had my first meal as I waited for a delayed flight: A Philly Cheese-steak sandwich. It cost me about R100, contained a strange yellow plastic substance that smelled like cheese but didn't taste of anything, and made me instantly ill. I stuck to veggies for a while, eating only at home so I knew what went into my body.

But after six months in the USA, having gradually succumbed first to the amazing sushi, then to the lure of their amazing hamburgers, carne asada and Mexican deliciousness fried in pork fat, I managed to actually lose weight, but grew in other places that proved that, yes, there are a lot of weird hormones in American meat. I bought a bunch of new bras and contemplated the future.

Back to vegetables?

Well, I tried.

California is a good place for it. During summer, you can stop and pick up a punnet of freshly picked berries every mile or so. Big, juicy and warm from the sun, they taste great. But these strawberries, blueberries, and cranberries are all – literally - poisoned. I wish I'd never researched this, but I did.

Testing published by found 14 different pesticides in a strawberry sample of 700 berries. Fourteen of the 55 toxins found on blueberries are neurotoxins which inhibit brain development. It actually makes sense if you think about it: it kills insects. Why wouldn't it be harmful to humans, too? Surprise surprise, it is.

Well, I thought, maybe I could just live on cereal and almond milk? Unfortunately, many so-called "health products" are often a trap, too. I recently made the mistake of reading the label on Fresh & Easy's Eatwell Cereal brand. It's packed with corn syrup and soy protein concentrate, both of which are extremely hard for your body to process and have been shown to contribute to obesity. Fresh & Easy initially advertised that their house brands were free of unpronounceable ingredients. What are Tocopherals (used to maintain freshness)?

Or perhaps I could only eat food that was "100% Natural!" Sounds good, right? But it's meaningless, and used with abandon to describe everything from fake fruit juice to... cigarettes. I can see myself, tossing an American Spirit tobacco and toxic lettuce leaf salad. Here's to healthy living.

"Family-owned" empires

Another favorite: "Family Owned", found on Knox Berry Farms' products, among others. The "farm" is so big that it's able to supply airlines, and most of America, with jams made from corn syrup laced with fruit. Define "family" will you! The Rockerfellers are a family. The Gates are a family (but at least Microsoft has shareholders too).

Basically, Family-owned means the family must be really super rich, cause they sure aren't sharing the profits of their huge commercial farms, or the factories that process and package their "all natural" products. The phrase must fool consumers into imagining Little House on the Prairie, or conglomerates wouldn't put it on the packaging. Their farms are glorified factories where plant-forms are cultivated in chemicals on the earth's surface.

And then there's "made with real sugar!". In a bizarre twist, cane sugar has become a sort of health food simply cause it's not quite as bad for you as high-fructose corn syrup. But most Americans won't benefit from it's amazing weight loss properties. Many don't drink the cane sugar Coke from Mexico because they're scared that the water in it isn't clean...

Which brings me to American tap water, which is badly polluted from the pesticides. True story: Atrazine, a pesticide that disrupts hormone systems and is banned in Europe, is present in 95% of US tap water. It's pretty funny if you think about it, that Americans who come to South Africa insist on bottled water when our tap water, while occasionally mildly tinged with feces, at least doesn't give you PMS.

So what do I do about all this? Well, I just eat it, drink it, and hope that I don't grow a third breast. After all, it all tastes pretty good. Not as good as the food back home, but pretty good. And if I do grow a third boob? Well, this is America, land of the free, home of buying whatever you need. I am pretty sure that if I needed a bra to fit that, I could just go out and purchase one.

- Jean is a screenwriting/directing dual MFA student in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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