“Tell Us, Oh Enlightened One”

I commute to work using public transport. Environmentally friendly, minimizing my carbon footprint, etc. blah blah — I do not necessarily claim any high-brow reasons for such, for all the benefits are obviously there. The truth is, I don’t need to drive it, I don’t need to fix it if it breaks, and I can sleep on it. Or read. In short, it is inexpensive and feasible (for my commute route anyway), and best of all, convenient. And, should I get one of my not so frequent migraines, the fact that I do not need to drive it becomes a yet more prominent argument in its favour.

As a result, I talk to people. Even here in England there are people who take public transport who will talk to you – some once they have seen your face a few times on the same train, some just because they feel chatty and the majority of the people around look like they’d just look at you funny if you spoke to them. Unsurprisingly, for all the majority of the people do not seem to want to talk, the remaining minority appear somewhat communication-starved.

Most of the time people seem talkative after work (not that I blame them, I am asleep on the train in the morning myself). And so we talk about the long day, weather or anything else, but we are commuting, and thus, the common and inevitable question “so, what is it that you do?” comes up. I tell them. The reaction is nearly always uniform — a mildly blank look as if they never heard of such a profession before, followed by one of intense curiosity. And then the questions flood in, ranging to asking about exactly what it is I do, to requesting advice regarding food: buying preparation and eating of it.

The most typical words I hear (which make me professionally and personally sad) are: “I am so confused”, “I feel like we are misinformed about this” and “Every time I turn around I hear conflicting things about what I should and shouldn’t eat”. The list goes on.

The people I speak to are usually educated [non-food] professionals who are not unread or unaware of ideas such as “natural”, “organic”, “this-or-that-free”. These are often people who are trying to eat right and take care of themselves – but in the end, the words that I hear from them sooner or later are along the lines of confusion and resulting mistrust in most of what they hear from the faceless media. And so, having cornered a real-life food technical professional, they want the answers from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

I by no means claim to be a completely impartial speaker when it comes to food. As it is my hobby and professional passion, I have an opinion and a half about everything (though I should hope none unfounded or without good reason). Having made healthy eating habits a study of personal interest, what I tell people is my opinion and I make clear it is such, though I do point out to them why I hold this view or another. For the most part, the fact that I do not get paid by any aspect of the food industry for marketing is enough. It is not my job to sell anything for anyone or to tell anyone they should buy a certain product for a profit for any company. And from that point of view, I am impartial enough – and happily willing to share what I think and know.

It is surprising in a good way (and a very good boost of pride in my industry and profession) to know just how glad people are to hear what someone working with food has to say to them face to face. And, humorous – in a good way, again — for the tone of the questions tends to be that which I imagine a rapt believer would ask of their prophet: “…tell us, oh enlightened one, what is the Higher Authority’s thoughts about our eating, so we shall not be led astray, nor sin unbeknownst any longer.”

The downside of the commute as means of educating the public about food and food industry is that it happens in not terribly long stretches, and often a conversation gets cut off just when the person thinks of a particularly interesting question, or I get to the point of what I was trying to explain. As an aside, perhaps writing here might eventually help answer some of the more general questions I get – here’s hoping, anyway.

Needless to say, I have similar conversations with many of my friends, and those do not necessarily get cut off at all. Instead, they often serve as a finger on the pulse of what troubles people who do not have an insider’s eye into the mysterious jungle of the industrial food production – the giant which swallows raw produce by the container load and brings it forth for the eating pleasure of most of the developed world’s population in the variety of forms, from packaged greens to processed snacks and prepared meals. I guess it is a measure of my love for food in most of its forms (and the reason why I am in the food industry) [and my apparent state of exhalted enlightenment] that ensures I never tire of answering questions.

Ask away.

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