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Food for thought – Why you need to know what you're eating

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” These words were written by the French lawyer and politician Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1825. Perhaps more famous for his pioneering study of all things food and its place in culture, Brillat-Savarin would have a hard time telling anyone today what they are.

Sure, people can tell you what their last meal was. But can they tell you where their food actually came from? Most of us can’t. Luckily, as a result of our increasingly digital world, the answers appear to be out there. (I hope that, unlike me, your last meal didn’t contain romaine lettuce, which the Public Health Agency of Canada is now reporting may be contaminated with a harmful form of E. coli bacteria if purchased in Quebec or Ontario.)

Nowadays, individual consumers are increasingly unable to determine the sources of their food and how it is produced. Aside from reading the sometimes exotic-sounding list of ingredients on many food labels, most of us can’t tell you much about the foods we consume.

You may be asking yourself, “What else do I really need to know about a carrot I bought at the grocery store?” Questions about our food matter because of the prevalence of diet-related epidemics such as obesity and diabetes sweeping western societies. In Canada, approximately 25 per cent of people are obese and around 8.5 per cent are diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, with rates of both likely to increase in the future.

How do our food choices affect these rates? That is to say, will the food we eat nourish us, or make us sick? For example, the variety of carrot we eat might tell us something about its vitamin and mineral content. We might actually want to know about the soil the carrot was grown in; does it contain the right amount of nutrients to grow healthy food? Or does it simply produce high yields, void of any real sustenance?

The question of what we are eating was once simple. The modern equivalent, however, involves many more specific and detailed questions. “What am I eating” becomes “what species or variety am I eating?”; “What types of fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides were applied to my food?”; “What hormones or drugs has my food been exposed to?”; or “What artificial flavours or additives are in my food?”
Because Canada has some of the highest food safety standards in the world, this information is often collected by food companies and governments throughout the food value chain. Using various digital sensors and cloud-based tracking systems, more data than ever is being gathered. Paradoxically, we as consumers know less than ever about what we eat.

Technology has allowed us to make huge strides in food safety and security by solving traceability issues and allowing data to be shared between officials in the event of a contamination outbreak. Food data is captured at every step along food’s journey from farms to our plates (examples of data collected relate to everything from the soils to seeds, and from molecular make-up to flavours present in the final packaged foods).

But what is it WE want to know about our food? Is it enough to know that it’s not contaminated and that it was grown in Canada, for example? Or do we want to know more about how that food was grown (small-scale or industrial), whether macronutrients and/or micronutrients were added to the soil, or what technologies were used to produce it (genetic modification or food processing techniques)?

These are questions that technology itself can help us answer since much of this information is being tracked. But we as a society must decide if we want that information in consumer-friendly format. Otherwise we will remain unable to decide for ourselves what we eat – and ultimately what we are.