The longer I research cattle and human culture the more I am struck by how intertwined the lives of cattle and humans are. As I observed at the Kasaragod Dwarf cattle festival, preserving India’s cattle means preserving India’s cultural traditions, which in relation to cattle are numerous and varied. Many of these traditions are rapidly changing as India continues to assert itself as a developing nation. Leaving behind the shackles of the caste system and reducing tropical diseases are inspiring and positive strides for the population of India, but other changes here are occurring at breakneck speed with no reflection about whether these changes benefit or harm the billion people that inhabit India. A visit to the local cattle powered cooking-oil factory made me pause to reflect about India’s food traditions, modern food production, public health, and of course, cows.
As a volunteer at Jag Therapy in Mysore, India for the past two-and-a-half months, I have had an intimate look at the connection between food and public health. Hundreds of people pass through the clinic every week with any variety of ailment imaginable, from slipped disk to ovarian cancer. Every person that gets treatment at the clinic is always asked what they eat and given specific dietary guidelines as part of their treatment. Dr. Jag has a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between food and human health and he is constantly lecturing the patients about their lack of awareness concerning where their food comes from. It is remarkable how many patients who come in for mechanical problems like frozen shoulder, tennis elbow, or slipped disk are also intolerant to gluten or lactose or have diabetes. Food born allergies are also on the rise in India. 11% of the population has gluten allergy, up from 6% just a few years ago – evidence that there is something awry with people’s basic nutrition.
Dr. Jag is a voracious reader of medical studies and has a comprehensive understanding of ancient Indian herbal healing, Ayruvedic medicine, Chinese medicine, Shiatsu massage, aromatherapy, and Western Medicine. Nutrition plays a key role in his treatments and he is constantly lecturing the patients and his volunteers about the adulteration occurring in the food system from genetically modified organisms, urea, and pesticides being used with increasing frequency in India’s farming, to the way that food is stored and processed. He lectures so much that he says that 90% of his treatment is “scolding”.
Ironically, these very people who grow, store, and process the very foods that Jag tells us are responsible for health epidemics also come to the clinic for treatment. One such patient, a man in his late twenties, who owns a cooking oil processing plant with his family, told us how cooking oil is refined while he was waiting to be treated. He described a process where the oil is extracted from ground grains or nuts first by grinding them and then adding a petroleum based solvent (most commonly hexane) to remove the remaining oil in the meal. The oil then is heated with sodium hydroxide or sodium carbonate, and “cleaned” using a centrifuge or acid water. It then undergoes another chemical filtering process and is steamed and cooled in it final refinement. Cooking oil is refined to increase its shelf life, alter its color, and remove any undesirable flavor or odor. The oil processor was happy to share this information with us even though every patient that comes into the clinic is told to give up fried food – not because fats are bad for people – but because the refined cooking oil that is used to fry food is.
A couple of days later Dr. Jag sent us to pick up his cooking oil at the neighborhood oil processing plant. We piled into the van and drove toward the heart of town. We parked the van in a non-descript neighborhood, walked through a gate, and suddenly found ourselves in the middle of an old fashioned, cattle-powered oil factory. While we were there they were making coconut oil from the flesh of dried coconuts. Two oxen were operating the press, which had two components: a huge stone mortar and a huge wooden pestle. The wooden pole was hooked to a long wooden bar that the oxen were attached to. As they walked in a circle, they made the wooden pestle roll around the wall of the huge stone container. As the coconut flesh was pulverized the oil was released. The wood and coconut against the stone made a loud squeaking noise. Every so often they would stop, skim the oil from the coconut flesh, filter it using a kitchen strainer and bottle it in a used plastic container. This ancient technique is called cold pressing and producing oil that contains only one ingredient – in this case coconut.
Dr. Jag recommends cooking with unrefined, organic, cold pressed coconut oil because it is a healthy fat with a high smoking point. (This means its fats don’t denature when heated, a problem in some other fats that turn into trans-fats when heated.) And no petroleum products or other chemicals were used to process it. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature until around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, then it is a liquid. It doesn’t necessarily look or act like the “flavorless” vegetable oil we get off the grocery store shelf. It sometimes imparts the smell and taste of coconut in the food it is cooked with. Most of the time this isn’t a problem, especially in South Indian cooking. Best of all this is a substance the body recognizes as food and knows how to digest and metabolize. Eating this fat does not cause the body to create cholesterol and provides the body with essential fatty acids, which are required by the brain and nervous system for optimal functioning.
Every region of the world has plants that have been used to make cold pressed oils for centuries. Mustard seeds in Northern India, olives in Greece, sesame seeds in China, Rape seed or canola in Northern countries are a few examples. These oils are high in “healthy” fats and have similar properties to coconut oil. It is only recently that corn and soy have been used for cooking oils because it is only in the past 100 years has the technologies like chemical solvents and centrifuges have existed to extract oils from these seeds. Because of the industrial commodity crop complex these “vegetable oils” have become widely used and considered “normal” while the regional oils have gone by the wayside. In India the shift from locally made cooking oils to industrial store bought oils has been swift. In 1998 the sale of mustard oil was banned in India. Some say it was to make way for Monsanto’s soya oil market. Vandana Shiva, India’s most prominent food activist and winner of the alternative Nobel Prize, discusses this in length in her book “Stolen Harvet: The Highjacking of the Global Food Supply”. You can learn more about the political forces shaping the oil industry in India in this article from the Ecologist.
It is this break down in the connection between people and their food that I am increasingly struck by as I travel around the world researching cattle, culture, and our local and global food supply. Nowhere has this been more clear than at Jag Therapy where so many people from so many walks of life have all become increasingly sick because of the conventional food system. The prevailing disconnect between food and health in the average citizen is disturbing. Similar to the man from the oil processing plant, we also met a patient who owned a facility that stores wheat. He was telling us that they apply chemicals to the grain while it is being stored, including DDT, to prevent rats and insects from “spoiling” the food. Like every one else, Dr. Jag told him to stop eating wheat in India. I now have no problem resisting chapattis (flat breads) when I consider they might be laced with DDT. Unless we become more educated about food, how it is grown, how it is stored, and how it is processed, we are leaving our trust and our health in the hands of food producers that care more about their profit than providing edible food for people.
More knowledge about how to grow and prepare nourishing food vanishes every day unless you and I don’t take an interest in preserving food traditions. Yesterday I was told the little back yard oil oxen powered cooking oil factory will be closing soon. The land was sold to a property developer and they are closing up shop. In the near future Dr. Jag and his family will have to look farther afield for a new supplier of unrefined cooking oil – while they still can.