Of Festivities, Fake foods and Fast food

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

As we enter this forthcoming festive season, let us keep in mind the real and the fake. At least as far as certain aspects of food and nutrition are concerned, not all that is real is necessarily good, and similarly not all that is ‘fake’ is bad

This is the time of the year when purses are a bit heavier and there is not only a tendency to but actual overindulgence in consumption – from food to a variety of things bought either for personal use or to give away as gifts. Of course a number of these will be useful, such as school items for children, but many others will last only a while and be literally burnt away: firecrackers providing temporary excitement! For a majority of people, it is almost impossible to resist simply buckling to the trends of the overly materialistic consumer society, for which of course there is a price, and some consequences not all of them being beneficial.

With so many ‘fakes’ surfacing, it was almost inevitable that ‘fake food’ would also come on the scene, and it has. Photo: i.ytimg.com

One area of concern, indeed continuously so but heightened during festive periods, is the food that we eat. It is helpful to remember the adage: we are what we eat, we become what we think. If we start by reflecting on what we want to become – which is about both our body and our mind –, perhaps that will assist us in making the right choices about what we will put into our mouth so as to make our body as healthy as possible. But we must know that the mind also forms part of the material equipment of the body. This bring us to another relevant adage: mens sana in corpore sano – ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’.

A notable exception, however, is the famous late scientist Stephen Hawking, who early on in his career developed a paralyzing condition that condemned him to live his waking life in a wheelchair, but his mind remained as sharp as ever until his last days, when he was still able to make seminal contributions in his field of theoretical physics.

Over the past few decades what we eat and drink has become a matter of major importance to health professionals and scientists, as their studies convincingly linked this factor to the explosion of what have become known as the ‘lifestyle’ or non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Initially these were called the ‘diseases of affluence’ because they were to be found mostly in the developed countries, but it was not long before they were also detected in under-developed and developing countries as well, including Mauritius. Because the latter countries were also still struggling to control diseases caused by infections (such as childhood pneumonia and gastroenteritis, malaria, then HIV-AIDS – all of which kill by the millions), they were said to be suffering from a ‘double burden’ of disease: the infectious or communicable ones and the NCDs.

The cause of this explosion of NCDs, which comprise in the main diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, some respiratory and mental conditions, has been traced to the rise in consumption of fast food and junk food, as well as carbonated drinks, what has been called the ‘coca-colonisation of the world’. This expression was coined by Professor Paul Zimmet, diabetologist from the International Diabetes Institute and a well-known friend of Mauritius who was the expert delegated by the World Health Organisation to make the first NCD survey in Mauritius in 1987. This is the survey that for the first time revealed that we were transitioning to the NCD burden. No one will deny that we too have been coca-colonised as well, and rapidly so, the proliferation of malls being one accelerating element in this wildfire spread of fast food and junk food.

As far as certain aspects of food and nutrition are concerned – not all that is real is necessarily good. Photo: i.ytimg.com

What do they refer to? Here’s an accepted definition: ‘Fast food refers to food that can be served ready to eat fast. Fast food and junk food are often used interchangeably. Energy dense food with high sugar/fat/salt content and low nutrient value in terms of protein, fibre, vitamin and mineral content is termed junk food’.

But recently, with so many ‘fakes’ surfacing, it was almost inevitable that ‘fake food’ would also come on the scene, and it has. Fast food and the associated soda or carbonated drinks originated in America, and of late there has been much debate there about ‘fake meat’. In fact, an article in the American media by Anahad O’Connor on 3rd December titled ‘Fake Meat vs. Real Meat’ and sub-headlined ‘Millennials are gobbling down plant-based burgers, prompting meat producers to question the health benefits of ultra-processed imitations’ gives an idea of what the aware consumers are up against, in the following words:

‘The meat industry has a warning for consumers: Beware of plant-based meat.

That is the message behind a marketing campaign by the Center for Consumer Freedom, a public relations firm whose financial supporters have included meat producers and others in the food industry. In recent weeks the group has placed full-page ads in The New York Times and other newspapers raising health concerns about plant-based meat substitutes like the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger, which are designed to look, taste and even appear to bleed like real meat.’

It will be recalled that a few years ago scientists were able to produce in the laboratory an artificial meat burger, using a few beef cells and multiplying them by established tissue culture techniques. There were issues with taste, texture and cost, but since then there have been improvements, though such artificial burgers are not yet ready to be commercialized.

In the meantime though the concern with red meat’s strong association with the NCDs, which several studies have highlighted and on the basis of which WHO has issued recommendations, has been leading people away from red meat. But many are still addicted to its taste and texture, and hence the innovative entrepreneurs who have come up with affordable, palatable and acceptable plant-based substitutes. This of course will not please the meat producing lobbies, which label these substitutes as ‘fake meat’.

In fact, perhaps such ‘fake meat’ has been around even earlier. Some years ago I was served what was called ‘vegetable chicken’ – a crispy preparation of probably soya and other ingredients which was given an artificial chicken flavour. Since I have left eating meat and chicken for many years now I did not really relish it, but had to please my host – just that once though!

A few days ago I was behind a customer at the counter in a supermarket. When I saw him taking out a can of a well-known brand of corned mutton, my thoughts went back to my childhood days when from time to time my father would buy this brand. I can still recall the pleasant aroma that tickled the taste buds and caused salivation as soon as he lifted the lid of the can. He would take out the chunky pieces with a fork, and one of the ways of eating was to make a salad with onion, green chillies, and tomatoes. Some while ago I happened to witness the opening of a can of corned mutton; what I saw was a pale, gooey – not chunky – kind of shiny paste, and there was a faint acrid smell which meant preservatives. I wished good luck to the customer in front of me.

And it is the same with so many canned consumer items such as pilchards, sardines: those of our generation and even a bit younger will not fail to comment that they are no longer as tasty as the versions we used to consume, and do remark about the absence of the aroma that they had earlier been familiar with.

So, there we are. As we enter this forthcoming festive season, let us be kind to ourselves. Let us be mindful to discern the wheat from the chaff – or, to put it in contemporary terms: let us also keep in mind the real and the fake. And also that – at least as far as certain aspects of food and nutrition are concerned – not all that is real is necessarily good (red meat, for example), and similarly not all that is ‘fake’ is bad. But, as always, moderation is best at all times.

* Published in print edition on 13 December 2019

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