Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Food Storage Technology

Yesterday, Mosch and I were at the house of one of his relatives, J. J and her roommate K were looking at a book of pictures from national parks of the world. K remarked that she had a friend (or someone she knew) who lived in Ghana, and told her it was wonderful there because all of the food was fresh - nothing canned, nothing boxed.

I found this a bit odd. After all, we have fresh food here, right? I could choose to totally eschew canned or packaged foods and have a complete diet with a ton of variety. To me, the availability of canned and packaged foods is an advantage of living here instead of Ghana. (Let me be clear. I can understand how if a westerner visited Ghana, they could find it refreshing to go to a market every day and purchase fresh foods for dinner, instead of the way we live here. I'm not arguing against the novel refreshment of a different lifestyle, just against the argument K seemed to be making that Ghana really is nicer in that way.)

So I commented in a pretty mild way that I appreciate the availability of canned foods, even though I have the option here of eating only fresh foods too. J said that she and K pretty much use fresh foods for their entire diet (which I think their giant full pantry argues against, but they do cook a ton of fresh foods, bake their own bread, etc.), and that this is why they plan to try canning this year.

J explained that canning your own food means having fresh food available year-round, as opposed to store-bought canned food, which is not the same, is full of preservatives, and sits on shelves for years.

I didn't argue with this (since I'm basically not a jerk, or at least not all the time), but it doesn't make much sense to me. Most canned goods of the type you could make at home are not, in fact, full of preservatives. If you look at almost any canned vegetable's ingredients, for instance, you'll see that it just contains that vegetable, water, and usually salt. Salt-free and organic varieties are usually available too. And there is a lot of turnover in these products, so I think it would be rare for a can to sit on a shelf for even three or four months, much less a year. (Exotic products may be different, but I doubt J & K are planning to can their own coconut milk or candied tamarind.)

Canning your own food sounds like it could be a fun activity or hobby - like making your own candles or brewing your own beer - but it's hard for me to see how it could be an improvement in either health or economy over buying pre-canned goods. And personally, I am really thankful for the modern technologies of food storage that mean I don't have to go to a market every day and buy fresh foods to make the evening's supper.


sally said...

I think some people truly believe that having fewer options would be "nicer" because it would force them to make the "right" choice, e.g. of buying all "good" fresh food rather than some "bad" processed food. A surprising number of people (and I am not counting JJ & K among them, since I don't know them at all) really do yearn to have the opportunity for making bad choices kept away from them, whether that be by Big Daddy legislation taking it away or by living in a culture that is not wealthy enough to have the developed a full array of options.

I agree that there's a major conflation between the specifics of some element of life (e.g. purchasing all fresh foods in an open air market) with an overall lifestyle (e.g. having the time and leisure to spend wandering around looking at beautiful fruits and vegetables rather than having to drive to work, be there 10 hours, then pick up the kid at day care and stop for food on the way home). You hear this a lot from Americans who have visited Europe - how wonderful it is to go to all the little shops rather than one big, yucky supermarket. And yes, it is a very pleasant experience when you are on vacation in Italy or living in Ghana for a year for the pleasure of it or otherwise not having to life your total, real life. (Even in 2001, I noted how busy the relatively few and small grocery stores in Germany were as normal Germans found it more efficient to do their shopping in one place rather than take a few hours every couple days wandering from seller to seller.) Many people have realized that a fruity drink with an umbrella in it does not work the same magic in their backyard as it did on their trip to the South Pacific; they cannot recapture the wonder of that experience by replicating some specific aspect of it. But I run into people ALL THE TIME who ahhh and sigh over shopping in a grocery store versus the open air market of their vacation destination (it is possibly THE standard comment about visiting Europe that I hear). I think the reality is that most of us would get pretty fucking tired of spending the equivalent of a part time job just doing the food shopping on top of all our other obligations. Shopping at the farmers market is fun and all, but do I want to transfer the free time to it that I am currently dedicating to playing "Fate" on my computer and watching "Battlestar Galactica" DVDs? I think not.

Oh, and I just want to call Bullshit on the various people (in the US) I know who want me to believe that they would be MORE likely to shop for food at a wide variety of little stores if they could do it all on foot. I know these people to make ridiculous effort-saving choices like riding the elevator up one flight of stairs in my office or driving their SUV to the end of the driveway to pick up the mail and so forth. I just don't buy it that making grocery shopping both more time-consuming and physically more demanding is what they're looking for.

As for the argument against the big canning companies: It's true that some minority of industrially canned food contains chemical preservatives, usually to protect the color of the food, but most do not contain these preservatives because they are not necessary; the high heat used in canning kills organisms that could cause spoilage. (And as Tam says, the government requires the label to reflect it when they do add them.) I think it is clear from the research that has been done that commercially canned foods are healthy (and some, like corn and tomatoes, are arguably healthier in the canned form), especially if you purchase the salt-free veg and "canned in juice" fruits.

I wish JJ & K luck if they choose to try their hand at canning, but I hope they know what they're doing; I think they're more likely to hurt that little girl by using unsafe home canning techniques that do not properly destroy the micro-organisms than they would be by serving her vegetables from the canners at Del Monte. But I believe that incorrect technique will often lead to swollen lids and other readily detectible problems and there is no doubt a huge wealth of information available on how to can safely at home. People have had a lot of years of experience to hone this procedure.

Tam's momm said...

Sort of related topic.
I was in Whole Foods (where I do 99% of my shopping)in the produce section this weekend. Two people standing next to me were discussing how horrible American produce is. That all the countries keep the best fruits and vegetables for themselves and send us the stuff they don't want. WFM doesn't have nearly as large a selection as Central Market but there are usually 10+ different varieties of apples from all over the world, organic and non organic, all kinds of citrus, and a nice selection of exotic fruits. I can even buy a pretty decent cherimoya there most of the time. It's pretty hard for me to believe I could find as nice a variety of produce anywhere else in the world, especially organic, which is important to me. I also think some poorer countries would rather send us their produce and make a bigger profit. I don't know any people in Ecuador who are stupid enough to pay $5 for a cherimoya like I am.

Tam said...

I bet you're right about that (the cherimoyas, I mean). Dang - complaints about the quality and variety of produce at Whole Foods don't even qualify as "first world problems." Those people are nuts!