The Colors of America’s (Food) System

For most of the 20th and 21st century, white has been emphasized. White has been put on a pedestal and widely distributed, from white sugar to white/clear oils to white flour. While white foods have been in the spotlight, it may be the foods of color we should now embrace in order to thrive.

A diversity of yellow fruits and vegetables, brown chocolate and nuts, black beans and seeds, and red meat and seafood, for example, gives us the variety that makes for a healthful system.

We’ve displaced the richness and depth of colors in food by focusing on the whites. Some have said that white is right, when it comes to eggs, for example. That’s all wrong. It’s the yellow in the middle that’s most full of sustenance.

Dairy is of course an exception. It’s a natural whole food that’s white. There’s nothing inherently wrong with white food, and dairy is an example of having a time and place for white in our system, but it’s only one part of a larger, more varied diversity of foods, and it’s not without its issues.

In the U.S., dairy’s prevalence is largely a product of subjugating other beings (cows) to produce stuff we find useful. We’ve taken the resulting white milk and churned it into hundreds of different white foods, from cream to cheese to yogurt. What should possibly only be a small part of the plethora of ingredients in our system, has woven its way into almost everything we eat.

Colorful foods that are often great on their own are often now combined with white cheese, white cream, white sugar, or white flour. And as a result, it’s actually sometimes much better than either food on its own! But when you taste more cheese than berries, more cream than coffee, or more sugar than chocolate, the integrity of the colorful, rich underlying ingredient, in addition to the history of its cultivation, is compromised.

Consuming dairy in excess, like with many other white foods, causes sensitivity and intolerance issues in many people. Two-thirds of the global population is lactose intolerant. A growing number of people are becoming gluten intolerant with the introduction of monoculture wheat and its refined white flour, especially in the U.S. While many lactose and gluten intolerant eaters don’t have issues with European dairy and bread, most of the world would be better off not blindly consuming all of these white foreign substances from America.

In addition to dairy, poultry is another food that has been overly prized for its white parts, from skinless chicken breast to turkey deli meat. Most poultry consumed in America is ultra-processed and produced to fit neatly into a sandwich, lathered thick with white mayo and American cheese. We would be much better off eating chickens and turkeys nose to tail, with all the colorful bits. Instead, food manufacturers and conventional nutrition advice funded by the government focus on the white breast meat, demand a premium for it, and sell the rest into secondary channels at a lower price.

White poultry meats have pushed aside more colorful foods, namely red meat. It’s a controversial topic, but if Americans were to eat only one food for sustenance and long-term survival, many argue that it would be red meat. There’s no other food in America that is so full of historical precedence and cultural tradition. For thousands of years, red meat has played a large role in our diets, often exclusively, according to animal-based diet advocates. Many animal-based dieters claim that the natural way of things is a diet consisting almost entirely of red meat, and that our bodies and natural ecosystems may be better off with only that one color in the American diet.

Advocates of regeneratively-raised, natural red meat posit that all of the white, black, brown, and yellow in our food system is displacing the original color in our diets: red. With all of the colors in our diet now, it it unlikely we will revert to diets of only red meat, but honoring the food that may have gotten us here seems appropriate.

Instead of honoring red meat though, we turn it into factory farm cheeseburgers, Big Macs, and hot dogs. We add toxins, refined oils and processed ingredients to an otherwise nutrient-dense traditional food. We take a historically healthy and robust food when raised in its natural evolutionarily aligned ecosystem, and we turn it into ultra processed foods that barely resemble the red meat that existed historically for tens of thousands of years.

While natural white foods that have been around for centuries, like parsnips and Swiss cheese, have a historical and natural evolutionary footing in our system, it’s the unnatural and recently manufactured white foods that are most harmful. And they’re also the most white. Crisco, for example, is an unnatural food that is also unnaturally white, and is the worst white food of all, single handedly causing hundreds of thousands of deaths due to its introduction of trans fat.

Eating white foods has led to health problems and disease, but eating too much of any one colorful vegetable can lead to toxicity as well. In times of deficiency, however, it makes sense to focus on one color. Indulging in foods of a specific color is acceptable and encouraged when we’re deficient in a particular micronutrient often found in foods of that color (for example, focusing on brown foods like dark chocolate, liver, and mushrooms if we are deficient in copper).

While battling deficiency, we should emphasize the foods needed to get into balance, and focus on the core problems that have caused the deficiency. Once in balance, we should not focus on any one color, but instead should embrace a diet of many colors. In a perfect world, we would simply eat the foods that sound most appetizing, without concerning ourselves too much about their nutrient makeup or color.

Unfortunately in food, our palettes have adapted to enjoying white foods. But with some training, we can start to enjoy and embrace both the complexity and healthfulness of more colorful foods.

It’s a shame that foods with such a colorful history have been stripped of their colors and made white. Colorful and antioxidant-rich potatoes of purple, red, and orange colors have largely been replaced with white potatoes. Ancient grains and multi-grain bread has been pushed aside in favor of white bread. Sweets in our diets, historically from colorful fruits, now come mainly from white refined sugar. While these foods–potatoes, grains, and sweets–used to be a source of diverse nutrients and depth, they have now been processed to be white and refined, not because it’s healthier for our system, but because white foods were subjectively deemed superior to foods of color.

We also have a crop system that inherently favors mono crops like soy and wheat. More colorful foods are often not given the opportunity to thrive. While having a diversity of crops may now be more difficult to integrate into a farm system built and optimized for monoculture crops, the benefits of doing so are worth it, and ultimately lead to a healthier and more sustainable food system.

It’s important to note that, for the most part, the problem is neither the white crops themselves nor the people that eat them. White potatoes and flour have no evil agenda, and Americans don’t strive to make unhealthy choices. It’s the system that generates the white foods that needs to change.

We shouldn’t blame American eaters for consuming white foods like sugar, vegetable oil, and refined flour. Everything in our food system has been designed to support those refined foods, and the prevalent message from corporations and government through most of the 20th century–from sugar advertisements to the food pyramid–was that white foods were excellent sources of calories that we should seek out first before more colorful foods:

The food pyramid popularized in the 20th century called for consuming white refined grains over more colorful and diverse fruits, vegetables, and meats.

People should not be forced to consume more colorful foods; rather, we should eat the most delicious, nutritious, economical, and sustainable foods available. The problem over the last hundred years has been a misguided definition of what’s nutritious and sustainable, in addition to misaligned government subsidies that make white foods more affordable–nearly all of our food subsidies go toward grains that get processed into refined foods.

Government dollars should be diverted away from propping up white foods like soy and wheat, and into foods of color and the soil that supports them. A colorful soil teeming with biological diversity is far superior to monoculture dirt.

It’s about building a system that makes colorful healthy foods an easier decision, and removes the artificial aids, like government subsidies, that benefit refined white foods at the expense of more diverse foods.

It was suggested in the early 20th century that Crisco and Wonder bread were “cleaner” alternatives to their colorful counterparts, like naturally yellow-hued butter and brown rye bread. It’s time we finally come to terms with the falseness of those beliefs. It may require changing our palettes, but our system will be healthier in the long run.

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