Why is there corn starch in my cheese?

When I made the decision to move to the United States from New Zealand, I knew that it would be a huge change and that I would experience a certain amount of culture shock, but having already moved from another country before I wasn’t too concerned and knew that I had the resilience and emotional resources to handle it without too much fuss. Learning to drive on the other side (in a big truck!) was far easier than I thought it would be and I adore the hot weather!! As much as I love New Zealand, I always felt chilly!

What I didn't expect was how very different the food and food culture here would be.

In New Zealand, we were actually pretty spoiled. Fresh locally grown or whole food is really easy to find. The majority of the locally farmed cattle are free range, grass fed and often organic, even if it’s not labeled that way. The extremes of factory farming, like caged hens and pigs, are a VERY visible concern there and the consumers take fierce stands against their food being treated like commodities. NZ is also very aware of and resistant to the overuse of pesticides, GMOs and insists on far more clear food labeling than in most places I’ve been to.

Good food that’s nutritious and wholesome is easy to get in NZ. And you don’t have a fast food place on every corner. For years I’ve watched documentaries like Hungry for Change and Food Matters with interest but not too much concern and a teeny bit of smugness because in New Zealand it's nowhere near that bad. But now that I’m here, I’m quickly starting to see just how scary the problem is.

I’ve discovered that food here has very little to do with nutrition.

I’ve spent a lot of time wandering around my local grocery store just looking at things, which in itself has been something of an education. Back home I would simply grab what I needed and be on my way, secure in the knowledge that what I was buying was what I expect it to be. An incident with grated cheddar cheese however taught me that I can’t take anything for granted. I was stunned to discover that a simple cheese (labeled “natural” I might add) contained not only colour additives and sugar, but potato and corn starch. Not ideal. Particularly if you have a sensitivity to potato.

And WHY would you add sugar to cheese?! WHY?!

But it's not just the supermarket, yesterday I did a count of the fast food places near the house. Within a 5 min WALKING distance, there are 17 fast food restaurants. 17!! The access to cheap food with little nutritional value is astounding.

And at the majority of those places, I can get a meal, usually fries and an endless refill drink for under $7. That is not only unbelievable, it should be economically impossible… if you’re using actual food. Which of course, they aren’t. I recently discovered that even the iced tea is just a pre-mix. No actual tea involved.

But what’s really amazed me is how little interest many of the people I speak to seem to have in the quality or content of their food, and even less awareness of its impact on their health beyond a simple "calories in calories" out effect on weight gain or loss.

I was stunned for instance to work with a woman just diagnosed with type 2 diabetes who was eating 2 minute noodles with margarine for breakfast every morning. And in some ways, I can absolutely sympathize. It’s easy. And I understand all too well the experience of trying to help family members change when you can see their health being affected and the resistance to change that you can encounter. (I don’t even want to get started on my husband’s morbid fear of greens or my step daughters soda addiction because we will be here ALL day).

But beyond the more extreme examples, what I have noticed here is that the majority of people are unwell in some way. Most people I meet have some kind of medical complaint that is often lifestyle related. Which is very obviously reflected in the massive annual cost of health care for preventable medical problems here. Around 2.6 trillion dollars. Yes. TRILLION. Yes, EVERY YEAR. And from personal experience, I can see why this is. I’ve been here for a short time, and while I’ve maintained many of my normal food behaviors, I certainly have been trying out some of the local flavors and finding myself already feeling less well than I did in NZ.

As I work more with people to develop wellness Im also seeing in action the ever increasing evidence about the huge impact that our diet and lifestyle can have on not only our physical health, but our mental health too, with far better outcomes than some other avenues of illness management. And considering that managing our health before it becomes problematic is not only easier and safer, but also hugely more cost effective, it’s so hard to believe that it still doesn’t get the attention and education it deserves

Tarryne West