Here's me, reflecting and reflected, in a Rio restaurant, just before participating in a conference in the city centre – yes, you have already guessed – 'supported' by Nestlé. This 'hello' introductory section moves towards my goodbye, at least for a while. This is my 15th consecutive column for our website since it became renewed every month beginning in March last year. After this month I am taking a break.
My columns celebrate food culture, and denounce threats to our living and physical world caused by unhealthy foods, unhealthy ways of eating, and the production of ultra-processed products worldwide. I begin positively, with the traditional Brazilian dish that taught me to love food in so many senses. After that, the next item features what's going wrong in our world – in this case the burgerisation of China. Then I draw attention to the massive push by the transnational Big Snack companies to protect their bottom lines. Then it seems that somebody has stolen my Joke of the Month with their own idea – fact or fantasy?
Mud, sweat, and inspiration
Vila Velha, Espírito Santo. I'm writing this column from the place where food started to burn with passion in my heart. I was born in Rio de Janeiro, but spent a great part of my childhood and adolescence living in Vila Velha. This, once a little town, became the centre of what is today the state of Espírito Santo, located in the Southeast region of Brazil, surrounded by the states of Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, Bahia and the great Atlantic Ocean.
You can imagine the great mixture that has emerged from this combination. Although Espírito Santo is known for innumerable beauties and delights, such as its coffee, its greatest treat is the Moqueca Capixaba which you see in the picture above, served accompanied with rice, and with pirão, the sauce made with the fish juices and manioc (cassava) flour.
The pot and the potters
Moqueca Capixaba ('capixaba' simply means 'from Espírito Santo') is more than a culinary delight. With its preparation, it is part of the culture of these parts. The authentic dish is prepared in a special mud (earthenware) pot, designed by the potters of Goiabeiras. By mixing their sweat, their joy, the mud, and pigments from the red mangrove tree, these women create unique, resistant and long lasting pots. The work of the Goiabeiras potters is recognised as 'an intangible cultural heritage' of Brazil (1) Yes, it is possible to make a Moqueca Capixaba in any earthenware pot, but cooked in a Goiabeiras mud pot it tastes intangibly better!
In the North-Eastern states of Brazil there are also fish stews that are called moqueca. But the Moqueca Capixaba is special. Besides its mud pot, its secret is its simplicity. You just need (very) fresh fish, coriander (shown in the picture above), chives, tomatoes, onions, garlic, salt, limes, and olive oil. The North-Eastern fish stews are 'richer' – they include pepper, eggs, potatoes, carrots, palm oil and/or coconut milk. They are good, but they are not the Moqueca I love. Try and judge for yourself.
So many Brazilian poets mingle the sensuality of food and the sexuality of love. Here, above and below, is the young brilliant Capixaba writer Renata Bomfim:
She becomes hot so slowly,
(Ela vai sendo aquecida, lenta e)
gently, on a low flame,
(delicadamente, em fogo brando.)
At the table, the loved one,
(Sobre a mesa, o namorado,)
warmed and amorous, awaits.
(temperado com amor, espera.)
Daughter of black native earth,
(Pretinha de barro, filha de indio)
In your lap, the fruit of the sea
(seu colo acolhe o fruto do mar)
is bubbling now, heavy with aroma.
(fervilhante, emana seu odor.)
And all of us wait, eager.
(Esperam-na todos, deleitantes.)
Now, a good table wine,
(Um bom vinho, à mesa,)
then a time of silence
(um silêncio respeitoso,)
while mouths moisten
(as bocas anseiam e marejam)
like sails, experiencing the sea.
(como velas errantes ao mar.)
Now it is the loved one that
(E o namorado vai sendo devorado,)
is devoured, transubstantiated.
With Holy Spirit in our mouths,
(Espírito Santo no ceu da boca.)
Moqueca capixaba is divine.
(Divina moqueca capixaba!)
There is no poetry in the ultra-processed products manufactured by the transnational corporations well named as Big Snack. Part of their plan is to destroy traditional cultures and cuisines. Big Snack, the mostly US-based gigantic corporations that are theoretically competitive, but are united in their main aims, are spending countless $US billion a year on propaganda designed to eliminate family meals (and therefore the family) throughout the world., and to replace them with branded energy-dense fatty, sugary or salty ready-to-heat and to-eat convenience, fast, and junk products eaten by lonely individuals. I stand up and say I will do all I can to prevent this abomination succeeding in my own country of Brazil. Join me!
Transnationals such as McDonald's, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Danone, have invested vast amounts of money on 'education' and research in their own interests, and to build their own 'scientific' institutes, such as the Coca-Cola 'Beverage Institute for Health & Wellness', and the Nestlé 'Institute of Health Sciences'.
McDonald's has its own Hamburger University. This started in the basement of a McDonald's restaurant in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, and now has branches in Germany, Australia, Japan, UK, and, I am sorry to say, Brazil. The latest $US 250 million Hamburger University has been launched in Shanghai, China (1,2), celebrated by Tim Fenton, McDonald's president for Asia, Pacific, Middle East and Africa (left in the picture above), with some Chinese colleagues. At the launch he said that China's $US 300 billion 'informal eating out' market is rocketing at a 10 per cent annual rate, compared with 2-3 per cent in the United States (3).
Young entrepreneurs in China want to get burgered. In the US, the ratio of candidates to acceptances at Harvard is 14 to 1. In Brazil, the ratio at the school of medicine at the University of São Paulo is 49 to 1. At the Chinese University of Hamburger the ratio is said to be 125 to 1. McDonald's is investing heavily to get trained managers to run the 1000 new joints they intend to open in the next four years in China, in addition to the 1300 already based in China (2).
- A Universidade do Hambúrguer. Super Interessante 291, May 2011.
The voluntary big wave
Here is a version of the trademark image of the 'Beverage Institute for Health & Wellness'. Clever, eh? My colleague Geoffrey Cannon calls it the flag of Cokeistan. Right now, Big Snack, of which Coca-Cola is a leading player, is chanting the 'we're part of the solution' mantra, and is flooding UN agencies and national governments with proposals of voluntary measures to tackle obesity and other food and nutrition related diseases. The wave shown above can be seen as the Big Snack tsunami.
What's needed for control
The World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control wisely states, within the general obligations of signatory States-Parties, in its Article 5.3: 'In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law' (1).
Such statements do not by themselves guarantee the protection of public health but they are a clear commitment based on sound principles. But there is nothing like this in any agreements on food, nutrition and health. Instead, industry whose products and profits are in conflict with public health is setting the agenda, with their voluntary code tsunami.
Why? Evidence that dietary patterns containing lots of ultra-processed fatty, sugary or salty energy-dense snack and other products cause obesity and diseases themselves caused by obesity, is overwhelming. But statutory regulations designed to protect consumers, including children, against the Big Snack tsunami, are suggested by the World Health Organization only as one option, which industry can and does ignore. As the UN Summit on non-communicable diseases, set to take place in New York this September, approaches, the general feeling seems to be that it is better to get voluntary agreements proposed by conflicted industry, than nothing at all.
How feeble! We know that voluntary agreements are industry's way of avoiding any action that might hurt their bottom lines, and that industry flouts its own agreements when it wants to, most of all in the South. And what's with statutory regulations being impossible or impractical? When I hear this, I remember the smoke-filled public places we used to have in Brazil, whereas now we can all go to a restaurant in Rio and anywhere in Brazil, and can eat without tobacco smoke destroying the aromas of our delicious cuisines.
Good news from the South
Governments need to stay alert to what's going on. Some in the South are building barriers to the Big Snack tsunami. Thus, in April this year, the Chilean Congress approved a Federal law that regulates the promotion and sale of foods in the country. The law bans the advertisements of energy-dense fatty, sugary or salty products to children under 14 years of age, and prohibits the sale, promotion or any kind of marketing of those products in schools or any educational setting. Where allowed, advertisements of those products will carry a warning, and products high in calories or salt, for instance, must be labelled as 'High in calories', 'High in salt'.
The next step is to get the law signed by President Sebastián Piñera, who you see in the picture above. Keep your nerve, Mr President!
- WHO. WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. WHO: Geneva, 2003. Obtainable at http://www.who.int/fctc/text_download/en/index.html
Joke of the month
Here is a fable for children who care about food and where it comes from, and protection of our environment. I am still working on it – advice and ideas, please.
Once upon a time there was a cow with the funny name of Water, who lived in the countryside near Poison City, capital of Garbagania, a country situated in Landfillia. She was getting increasingly bored by the peace and quiet of where she lived, so one day she decided to move to the city. As she got close she became impressed and excited with all the new noises, lights, and smells. When she finally arrived at Poison City, she was very thirsty after the long journey, so she started to look for a river or pond from which to drink. She spent hours walking around the city, but all the water there was in bottles, and she couldn't communicate with the locals as she only spoke Moo, the cow's language, so she kept looking for a river or a pond. Finally she found the Dump River that ran through Poison City, and she ran straight to it and as she was desperately thirsty she jumped in. Having dived in, she heard some yelling in Moo: 'Ouch, ouch, ouch!', 'uhh, uhh', 'hey fellow, easy, easy!'
But there was no other cow. She started thinking that this whole new place was making her confused, getting her to hear voices: 'This place is making me crazy', she thought. She started to drink, and then she realised that it was the water that was talking to her in Moo. 'Take it easy pal!' Water was shocked and asked: 'Who are you?' Then as she felt herself feeling melting away, she heard the answer: 'We used to be cows like you!', and then, as she became all melted, she heard: 'Welcome partner, you are now cow water.' This is how Water the cow, became cow water.
Believe it or not...
This story could be developed into a nice fable, with imaginative illustrations. Maybe it's time for a children's column on this site. But often truth is stranger than fiction. After all, the pioneer nutrition scientist Justus von Liebig invented beef extract in the middle of the nineteenth century. At that time cattle in Argentina and Uruguay were bred mainly for their hides, and most carcases were left to rot. With business partners, von Liebig's brainwave was to render the bodies down, bottle and ship the resulting paste, and sell it in Europe as a universal elixir. It was a smash hit. Above is one of its advertisements, of the Angel Gabriel appearing to the prophet Mohammed, thanks to fleisch-extrakt, also known as extractum carnis. Once this, and successors such as Oxo and Bovril, were diluted to make a fortifying drink, what was this but beef water? Indeed, Cudahy's beef extract from Omaha, Nebraska, sold both as a medicine and a food, was available in solid or liquid form, as you can see from the advertisement below.
We are all accustomed to chips (crisps) and other snacks advertised as if they contain cheese, or beef, or bacon, or barbecued something, and we all know that these products give us the sensory jolt from chemicals that deliver the sensation but not the reality.
So what could be more natural, ethical, healthy and sensible, in this enlightened age, than MeatWater, containing some guaranteed boiled-down cow (or sheep or pig or chicken or whatever), plus vitamins? What an enlightened idea! Following previous brilliant marketing initiatives, here below are three of the products, for beef Stroganoff, cheeseburger, and Peking duck MeatWater™. Have these not yet reached your supermarkets and convenience stores? Shame! There are two dozen more yummy flavours.
So where is the joke? Perhaps the joke is that this is no joke. MeatWater™, however similar its products might seem to be to VitaminWater™, is logical. That barbecue that used to be shared by the whole family on weekends will become outmoded. Instead people will get together to share bottles of Texas BBQ flavoured MeatWater™ (1). Keep the escargots and shrimp pad Thai versions available in the fridge, in case an aunt that does not like red meat shows up.
This is me!
For my dear readers
Here's me again! I am hard at work now on our behalf, for I am also responsible for our Association's membership, and as well throughout this year and into 2012, as a member of one of the teams preparing our Rio2012 congress, featured in this month's home page of our Association. Plus if you wondered, I have a job! So with sadness I am letting go of this column, at least for a while, with so many thanks to you my readers, and my supporters, and to those of you who disagree with me but who I hope I have provoked into higher consciousness.
Acknowledgement and request
You are invited please to respond, comment, disagree, as you wish. Please use the response facility below. You are free to make use of the material in this column, provided you acknowledge the Association, and me please, and cite the Association’s website.
Please cite as: Gomes F. Mud, sweat and inspiration, and other items. [Column] Website of the World Public Health Nutrition Association, June 2011. Obtainable at www.wphna.org
The opinions expressed in all contributions to the website of the World Public Health Nutrition Association (the Association) including its journal World Nutrition, are those of their authors. They should not be taken to be the view or policy of the Association, or of any of its affiliated or associated bodies, unless this is explicitly stated.
This column is reviewed by Geoffrey Cannon. My thanks to my parents who taught me the simplicity and essentiality of life also expressed in the traditional recipe of the Moqueca Capixaba. So many thanks to Association Publication Secretary Geoffrey Cannon, who not always patiently 'translated' these 15 columns – almost a book!