I was starving after yoga this morning (Chandra Yoga Studio – amazing teachers & most affordable I’ve found in TA), and stopped at Loveat for a muffin and a free coffee (I had reached my ten!). In most religions there is some sort of prayer or thanks for the food, acknowledging some higher power, hard work, and sometimes the people that labored in order to make said food. During my Vipassana retreat, we were told that each moment was supposed to be (at least an attempt) at meditation – as we were silent 24/7, mealtimes were interesting. You contemplate every bite. You think about where the foods come from (I do this a ton anyway, as you know), and more specifically, who had a part in creating them. Of course, there are the cooks who put things together, the kitchen being a chemistry lab of sorts, to make the raw ingredients into something more delicious or often, actually edible (eggs must be cooked, flour cannot be digested without being worked, etc).
But where does everything come from?
Today, as I ate this delicious bran-pecan-cinnamon muffin, I thought about breaking the recipe of this one food item down, and seeing what it took to create this yummy pastry.
So here’s an ingredient list from a simple cinnamon-pecan muffin recipe I dug up online (courtesy of About.com):
- 1-1/2 cups flour
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup chopped pecans, lightly toasted
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
Some words on agriculture
Agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries in the world. Some US statistics: In the USA, an average of 516 workers die every year. It’s also one of the most hazardous industries for young workers. What does this mean? Agriculture deaths accounted for 42% of deaths of young workers (17 and under) between 1992-2000, and more than half of these were children under 15 years old. Over 1 million young people work on farms, their risk 4 times greater than in other work industries, with an average 27,000 injuries sustained every year.
Amazing that this is how we rely on one of the most important resources key to our survival. These are US statistics, alone. Goodness knows what it’s like in other countries.
Flour is one of the most important food products in the world, and most is made from wheat. About 20 billion bushels are grown during a year, and Canada, China, France, India, Russia, and the United States grow the most wheat. Here is a great website that tells you about wheat-growing in brief. There are four main varieties, some better for bread, others for pastries, and one for pastas, etc. Dry, mild climates are best. There are two harvests per year, as there is winter wheat and summer wheat.
After harvesting (big tractors and the like, see picture), the grain goes through a threshing process to separate the cereal grain from the inedible chaff. Then it is taken to (usually huge) gristmills, where the wheat (or other grain) is ground by use of steel or cast iron rollers. I imagine there is an intricate packaging process, and then there is worldwide distribution. I can’t imagine the millions of people involved in bringing us just the flour that we use to bake bread and other baked items we depend upon (that we, in turn, built factories to outsource the production of which). Because most like white bread, flours are bleached using chemical oxidizing elements.
Sugar is made from either sugarcane (70% of worldwide sugar production) or sugar beets (30%). Brazil is the largest producer of sugar today, although more than 110 countries in the world grow sugarcane, and the EU and Ukraine are the largest exporters of sugar beets. The cane is indigenous to Southeast Asia, with India being the earliest producer of sugar. There are two stages to process the cane – first the milling (a long process), shredding, crushing, and collecting the juice – then cooking to extract the actual sugar. Sometimes some bleaching occurs here. The second part is the refining, cleaning and clarifying of the raw sugar with various processes (some chemical using acids), and a further bleaching. (Packaging, shipping, etc, etc, bla bla bla)
Baking powder is a chemical agent used in baking, obviously, to make cakes and such rise without the fermentation that yeast produces. It’s made up of (usually) sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and an inert ingredient like cornstarch. Sodium Bicarbonate is produced in a lab, although it also is naturally occurring and can be mined. The most common way to produce it is through the Solvay process, which is the reaction of calcium carbonate, sodium chloride, ammonia, and carbon dioxide in water. Hmm.
Cinnamon is a small evergreen tree native to Sri Lanka, and is now cultivated commercially all over South and Southeast Asia, the West Indies, Brazil, and parts of Africa. The plant is grown for 3-4 years, then undergoes coppicing which means it’s cut low to encourage lots of little shoots to grow out of it. The shoots are harvested, stripped of bark to get to the inner bark, the strips of which curl, then are immediately processed and dried carefully. Timing apparently is really of the essence in this process.
The salt we eat is refined NaCl – Sodium Chloride. It’s produced by drying seawater or by mining. These are huge operations. Salt used to be more precious than gold.
Unripe pecans on tree
Pecan is a species of hickory, the word itself meaning “nut requiring a stone to crack” in Algonquin. The trees are native to North America, and are one of the most recently cultivated crops in the world. Even in American colonial times, the wild pecan was eaten only as a delicacy. The US produces between 80-95% of the world’s pecans. A pecan tree can live and produce edible fruit for more than 300 years.
Usually produced by chickens, most sold are unfertilized (no roosters around), and hence don’t harm potential life. That said, most egg-producing chickens (there are two breeds almost exclusively these days, those for eggs (layers) and those for eating (roasters), all native breeds almost overtaken). These chickens live in terrible conditions, the minimum amount of room allowed (they never move), their beaks often broken to prevent them from hurting each other and themselves, disease runs rampant, and I can go on and on. Free range eggs aren’t much better, when you look into it.
In the western world, cow’s milk is produced entirely industrially. Huge farms, automated milking, hormones, antibiotics, the works. The largest producers of milk are India, the USA, Germany, and Pakistan. I hope that my milk comes locally – Israelis have a huge dairy industry compared to other countries of the same size, I think. Then again, so much dairy used in junk food is powdered (“milk solids”)…and that could have come from anywhere.
Lipids extracted from plants – today done chemically. The crude oil produced is not edible, and it must go through other chemical processes in order to create a type of fat we can actually consume.
To make a muffin, my ingredients are grown or mined or chemically created and brought to me from potentially over a hundred different countries around the world. It’s at least a couple dozen. Hundreds of industrial refining processes are used, not to mention all of the packaging and shipping worldwide, on airplanes, ships, trucks, and probably even animal drawn (or human drawn) vehicles. Other factories may have been involved in my home country to further cook or refine some ingredients. Then the baker or bakery or industrial bakery bought these goods, and combined and cooked them to specification. The process of bringing these elements together could have taken years for some of the ingredients. Millions of people were involved. Many, many of which were in grave danger and received very low pay for their labor.
It really makes you think. Every time you bite into anything. Anything. You’re biting into the labor of millions. Even if it’s a raw fruit. Someone had to plant it, work the fields, pick the fruit, package, ship it, sell it. My goodness. For good or bad. How divorced have we become from our food? We eat blindly. Absolutely blindly. I cannot even find out where my rice (or most any other product) was grown. My grocer usually doesn’t know where the produce came from. It’s scary.
All that work. Blood, sweat, tears. Injury and death. All for my overpriced morning muffin.
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