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Thursday, November 3, 2016

THIS TOPSY-TURVY EARTH


Cleaning out the pantry last night I came upon a bag of Italian pasta. This enriched macaroni product, made of durum wheat semolina, is made in Tuscany by a company by the name of Maltagliati. From the impression produced by the colorful package, Maltagliati is a family owned company which has been proudly bringing us all types of noodles since 1848. The bag's contents were in the cute bowtie shape familiar to anyone who has had Italian food, so everyone. And like most of its kind it is enriched with vitamins including niacin, iron, thiamin, riboflavin and folic acid. Which I presume is to give it the illusion of being nutritious, because refined wheat on its own is pretty worthless.

My mother had purchased this and other pasta products in an effort to maintain a fully-stocked pantry so that if guests came over for dinner they could be fed, and because keeping the cupboard full is what mothers do. My mom, who passed away in August, was an exceptional cook who could make simple spaghetti marinara taste divine. Her culinary virtuosity was legendary in our neighborhood and all my friends never missed an opportunity to join my family for dinner, my brothers' friends too. Needless to say the Dave boys grew up eating pasta virtually every night. Not just because the high-carbohydrate, high-fat content makes it a comfort food on par with pizza. But unlike pizza, noodles are inexpensive and easy to make. Just 10 minutes on the stove and a bottle of Ragu plus some of my mom's secret spices and maybe a dash of Parmesan cheese and voila, masterpiece. Ah, those were the days! Or not.

In college I began weight training and transitioned to a bodybuilders' diet consisting of lots of lean protein and potatoes. This was when I discovered that, like other wheat products, my childhood favorite food left me feeling bloated and backed up. And so I gave up pasta and bread and promptly lost 10 pounds around my middle. Most people gain a pound of weight every year after graduating college. I graduated high school weighing 165. I now weigh 157. This is actually 10 pounds heavier than what I had been since becoming vegan a half dozen years ago. (A few months back I temporarily reintroduced animal protein to gain muscle. Mission accomplished. Fish and eggs out the door.) I have no desire to eat pasta ever again, so my first inclination was to donate the macaroni to some worthy charity. I discovered online, however, that most food banks require you to drive your donation to them. I don't like to drive and had already made my weekly trip into town. Even for a good cause, a few bags of macaroni don't justify another stint in traffic. And really, why should I give away food which I deem unfit for human consumption? After all, wheat is basically cardboard. It's only the fatty, salty sauces that make it at all palatable.

On my way to the trash can to dispose of the worthless item, I noted the price on the package and it stopped me in my tracks. One lb of pasta costs $1.50. Now I've already told you that Pasta Maltagliati is a product of Italy. I didn't mention that it is also organic. Organic foods are more costly than traditionally-grown items, and Italy is so far away. Reminds me of a song. Pause to reminisce.



Also, the fancy package had to cost more than say, no package at all, which is how produce is generally sold. What really blew me away is that at 200 calories per serving and 8 servings per container, the package of pasta provides 1600 calories. I eat about 3000 calories a day, which means that 2 packages, costing $3, would meet my caloric needs. Speaking of my weekly trip to the market. I just got back, and I usually buy 7 sweet red bell peppers a week. I have one a day, which I simply munch on like an apple. After all, bearing seeds, a bell pepper is a fruit. Each one costs  $1.50, or the same as a bag of pasta. It weighs about 6 ounces, so about a third as much. And it's not organic. The organic peppers cost $2.49, which is too chichi for me. Rather than spend an extra dollar per fruit I just wash mine really well. I've learned not to mind the taste of soap. And of course bell peppers come without the fancy wrapper. You just grab them and go, making sure to wash first of course.

To take our numbers crunching to its logical conclusion, note that one large bell pepper, which costs the same as a 1,600-calorie bag of macaroni, has 42 calories. Meaning in order to satisfy my caloric requirements on a diet of peppers alone I'd need to eat about 75 of them. Which would cost me $112.50, or nearly 40 times what a 3,000-calorie pasta diet would cost. 

It is true that man does not live by bread alone, or for that matter on pasta. And eating exclusively macaroni every day would leave me feeling sick. In other words severely malnourished. The only requirements that such a high-carb diet meets are those that the added vitamins address. Namely some B-vitamins. Pasta has no vitamin A or C or E, and no calcium. That it has 32 grams of fiber is beyond belief since eating noodles has never helped me go potty. 

By contrast, a diet of 75 red peppers supplies you with 70 times the requirement for vitamin A, about 10 times what you need of vitamin E. It also gives 260 days worth of vitamin C and nearly fulfills your calcium requirement, while providing 258 grams of fiber, or 10 times what a young lady needs. Bell peppers are also high in water and 75 of them would provide you with about 3 gallons of hydration. So you'd be crapping a lot, and peeing too! 

Now I know that eating so much of either food is impractical if not impossible, so don't try this at home. It is simply to illustrate a point. Namely that our Earth is topsy-turvy. Things have got to change. Why is a highly processed, packaged product from Italy priced the same as an unprocessed whole food that comes from somewhere down the road? If bell peppers aren't grown in California, persimmons sure are, and that same visit at the grocery store informed me that one of my favorite seasonal fruits is currently priced at $2.50 per fruit. Imagine the work that is required to convert tasteless stalks of wheat in some fields to cute, if also tasteless, little bowtie pasta in a cute package? That's a lot of manpower and expensive machinery, never mind the fuel used to transport it thousands of miles. Only in a backwards world. And comparing the price on that bag of pasta with my recent grocery bill left me feeling, well, like crap. My trip to the market involved these items:

bananas
strawberries
melons (4 varieties)
apples
oranges
lemons
green grapes
lentils
split peas
canned beans
baby carrots
bell peppers
onions
garlic
tomatoes
jicama
sweet potatoes
spaghetti squash
broccoli
green beans
asparagus
cauliflower
collard greens
zucchini
chia seeds
raw nuts and seeds (4 types)
coconut oil
protein powder
stevia
cocoa bowder
black tea

This is what I buy practically every week. Some foods, like coconut oil and protein powder, I buy less often. The bill is usually around $150 dollars (and 7 bags, which I bring from home). That's about $20 dollars a day. And it flabbergasted me that I could save lots of bags and time and money by eating pasta at 1/10th the price. I just wouldn't be happy or healthy. And you can't put a price on either. Which is why I'll continue eating and washing peppers.

And so I threw away the package of pasta, but the thought that gave me pause will always be with me. If it costs so much to serve my health, it stands to reason that the conscientious shopper should see a return on his investment, above and beyond the fitness gains and slim waist that such a diet encourages. Life insurance companies such as Health IQ are already offering discounts to marathon runners. This is because these fitness enthusiasts have a “35% lower risk of all-cause mortality” than non-runners. I foresee a future in which tax breaks will be offered to healthy eaters. Where health insurance premiums for those who maintain a healthy weight on a diet of nutritious (if more expensive) food are greatly reduced. Where employers offer higher salaries to workers whose grocery receipts prove their commitment to a healthy lifestyle because healthy (and happy) employees will take fewer sick days and be more productive on the job. 

And finally, where the makers of junk foods will foot the bill for the rising costs of health care by paying higher taxes rather than profiting off the government subsidization that makers of refined grains and animal products currently enjoy. That way the cost of producing nutritionally-bereft ultra-refined foods is reflected in their purchase price. The 1600-calorie bag of macaroni, organic and imported from Italy, should really cost the same per calorie as 40 red peppers. Either red peppers can go down in price, or pasta will have to rise. I vote for the former, but no longer a pasta-aficionado, you know where my allegiance lies. 

This is the not too distant future, people. It will happen in your lifetime. You may be old and gray, but you'll be less of these if you eat your fruit and vegetables, despite their lofty price. Until society gets its collective head on straight, keep investing in your health. And like me, throw the junk away. Garbage belongs in the garbage. Better in the waste than on your waist, is what I say. And if by chance you splurge on a persimmon while they're still in season, buy one for me, 'cause I'll be with you in spirit.


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