Traditional foods offer healthy eating solutions

Sometimes, there is wisdom to be found in the past and the old way of doing things. In response to a striking lack of fresh and local foods, Zachariah and Mary Ben, a couple living on the Navajo Nation Reservation, decided to plant their own–modern farmers looking back to their roots to feed the youngest generation.

In 2021, when the Bens’ son was born, they were confronted by the very apparent lack of fresh local and traditional baby foods available near the Navajo Nation. Unfortunately, this is not surprising given that the Navajo Nation Reservation is a rural area classified as a food desert by the United States Department of Agriculture. The reservation is a land base of 71,000 km2 upon which there are only 13 grocery stores that offer fresh fruit, vegetables, and basic supplies. Some areas of the reservation are particularly underserved–those that offer fresh produce and other supplies tend to be in the high-population areas of the reservation, meaning that inhabitants in more rural sections have an even-more restricted access.

In light of such limited options, Zachariah and Mary decided to take matters into their own hands, feeding their son and honoring time-honored food traditions at the same time. For their son’s first solid meal, the couple steamed Navajo white corn in an underground pit that resembles a modern-day pressure cooker for 12 hours before dehydrating the corn for a week on drying racks. The corn was then milled down so that it would be fine enough for it to be baby-friendly. The experiment went well; according to Zachariah, “That labor of love, all of that ancestral knowledge, all of that connection… that type of reaction is what we wanted for the rest of our people.” Thus, they created their own baby food company, Bidii Baby Foods.

Zachariah and Mary embody a new generation’s approach– not only to food but also to heritage and entrepreneurship. They personify a generation of consumers who believe that there is wisdom in traditional ways of eating and that young food entrepreneurs have their place in the well-established and sometimes stagnant food market. Unfortunately, an inspiring story like Zachariah and Mary’s seems increasingly unlikely in Europe, as the European Union continues to legislate against the things the Bidii Baby Foods couple stands for–traditional foods, traditional methods, and small businesses.

Europe stifling innovation in the name of uniformity 

In Brussels, one of the most debated topics currently is the Front of Package (FOP) food label as the bloc turns its focus to harmonizing these labels across the EU. One of the most widely-used labels is known as Nutri-score, which ostensibly is supposed to rank foods using an algorithm from healthiest to unhealthiest with a corresponding letter grade going from A-E and a corresponding stoplight color (green to red). However, the reason why the topic is so hotly contested in Brussels is because Nutri-score has not yet shown its efficacy nor its empirical soundness. The labeling system has already gone through numerous iterations of its algorithm, consistently reshuffling its opinion on what foods are good or bad. Its constant changing of position is more based on a response to external pressure and civil criticism rather than scientific fact.

The label has faced fierce criticism not just from local farmers and companies, but also from some EU countries themselves. One better understands the absurdity surrounding this issue when one learns which foods find themselves persona non grata according to Nutri-Score– often foods with DOC or AOP heritage labels like Roquefort cheese, Spanish olive oil, and even prunes have been labeled by Nutri-Score as unhealthy foods. Nutri-Score shows a worrying lack of nuance when giving certain foods poor ratings simplistically based on their fat, salt, or sugar content. Its inability to take into consideration the bigger picture like the processing of the food or broader nutritional benefits highlights the futility of the FOP label.

Beyond the futility of Nutri-Score, with the way the algorithm is created, there is an inherent bias towards large companies. Large companies with strong R&D departments are able to exploit their resources to work toward a theoretically perfect nutritional composition to game the algorithm and receive the best possible grade. On the other hand, a smaller company commercializing the same product, that has fewer resources at its disposal but is making a product with more honest ingredients, is penalized with a worse grade. An incredibly pertinent example of this is the Nestlé cereal “Chocapic” which managed to receive a B rating. The rating has now been increased to A showing that Nestlé was able to “game” the algorithm since the cereal contains little fat,  and is mostly made up of carbohydrates. From a nutritional perspective, Nutri-Score has a high tolerance for sugar and carbohydrates. Thus, a 30g recommended serving size (most children are having at least twice the serving size) is already 30% of a child’s recommended daily sugar intake. For the sake of comparison, the no-name Carrefour version of Chocapic is at a C rating. Thus, the same product can receive different grades based on how the ingredient list has been gamed. Not only does this make no sense to the consumer, but it becomes an exclusionary factor for smaller food companies.

Food standardization shouldn’t get a good grade

Certain countries are waking up and are starting to understand the larger and more dangerous implications of FOP labels like Nutri-Score can have on the food culture in a country. Romania has already banned Nutri-Score citing that Nutri-Score could not accurately inform customers, thus in the name of consumer protection the FOP label was banned. Switzerland is on a similar path, after having adopted Nutri-Score, it might now become the first country to backpedal and overturn the adoption of the FOP label. The Swiss Council of States has approved a motion to consider the potential negative outcomes of the Nutri-Score adoption. The motion references the fact that the cornerstone of a healthy diet is a broad and varied approach to eating and that one cannot rely on scores to make healthy choices.

Ultimately, companies like Bidii Baby Food are an essential part of the food landscape, they allow consumers a diversity of choices, they offer consumers the opportunity to prioritize heritage ingredients, and they offer a more human approach to the food we consume (in terms of size, mission, and respect of a shared culture). Instead of putting misleading labels on cereal boxes, the EU should focus on what they can do to encourage innovative farmers like Zachariah and Mary Ben to set up shop in Europe. It is vital that we support these sorts of businesses that counterbalance the worrying trend towards standardization and uniformization of our food in the name of simplicity for a letter grade that isn’t based on an unreliable algorithm.

Image credit: AI_HikesAZ/Flickr

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