Why can’t we eat like Europeans?

Photo Credit: Gabriel Yeung

This past May 23 marked the 3rd annual international march against the American biotech giant Monsanto. It was reported that over 400 cities around the world had supporters flood the streets to raise awareness for the ever increasing amount of GMOs and chemically enhanced products being introduced into our grocery stores, and consequently, our diets.

If you asked me a year ago how I felt about genetically modified foods, artificial colorings and flavors, artificial sweeteners or pesticides, I would have given you a mediocre response consisting of an abundance of ‘hems’ and ‘haws’ that would not have accumulated into a well-developed opinion.

However, the past year has opened my eyes to the health threats associated with these new age agricultural practices.

My crash course in GM food and artificial additives began last summer when I packed my bags and moved across the pond for what was going to be one of the most memorable experiences of my university life. I spent nine months living in a small community in the south of France, right on the Mediterranean Sea. Within my first few months of arrival, I lost 10 pounds.

At first I was quite baffled — what was behind this sudden weight loss?

None of my habits had changed. I was eating the same foods in the same quantity, and having never been too keen on exercise, that certainly didn’t change in France either. So why were all my pants so loose? What one of my European friends suggested absolutely shocked me.

They were all convinced it was because North America has forsaken fresh, quality produce. Europe has much stricter policy surrounding added dyes, flavours, and of course, genetically modified products. In fact, a lot of European Union states have even begun to outlaw Monsanto foods, one of the most recent being France’s ban on genetically modified corn.

Within my first few months of arrival to France, I’d lost 10 pounds.

And that’s when I started to notice something incredible about European societies — the percentage of obese and heavy individuals was astronomically low compared to Canada. After doing some research, I found that last year the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported that approximately 25.4 per cent of Canada’s adult population can be described as obese, but many European countries fall within the 10–15 per cent range.

If this doesn’t come as a wake-up call to Canadians about our health and habits, then we will certainly see the percentage continue to rise. And if we don’t address this we will end up in the same percentile as the USA, who according the OECD weighs in with a whopping 35.3 per cent of their adult population suffering from obesity.

I don’t know the exact details behind how I lost so much weight so fast, but I am not willing to discredit the idea that it was brought on by the removal of added dyes, artificial flavorings and sweeteners, pesticides, and GM food from my diet.

It’s the same uncertainty I feel that has led to demonstrations across the globe. Put simply, the average consumer no longer knows exactly what they are eating, and many of these consumers will not stand for it. Protesters rightfully took to the streets this May to demand that any GM food be labeled because to date, Health Canada does not require companies to properly inform the consumer about GMOs in their product.

When polled, over 80 per cent of Canadians were in favor of such labels, yet Health Canada has been reluctant to answer the call of the people it was asked to protect. I support these protestors in their call for fair labeling. After all, due to the fact that GMOs are so modern, the long-term health consequences are inconclusive.

Canada needs to embrace the European approach to agriculture — this means natural and organic first.

Canada needs to embrace the European approach to agriculture — this means natural and organic foods first. Supporters of GMOs, pesticides and additives often cite the growing population and the need for cheaper alternatives as a reason to support these modern agricultural practices.

But the argument for GM foods and artificial enhancers just don’t outweigh the need for fresh, safe produce. We consumers should explore alternatives before jumping on the bandwagon of chemically and genetically enhanced products.

Canada has prided itself on being a global ‘leader.’ This begs the question: why don’t we lead in the development of sustainable, organic agriculture? If Europe finds a way to avoid everything that’s wrong with our food, why can’t we?

Evidence suggests the multitude of potential risks associated with food dyes, including allergies, hyperactivity, learning impairment, irritability, and aggressiveness in children. If that wasn’t startling enough then there is also science to suggest that GM food can be linked to the development of non-GM food and soy allergies, liver disease, fertility and reproductive problems, and unpredictable cell mutation.

And that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to additives in our foods. When considering all of these potential health risks, it is no stretch of the imagination to think that these new practices could also be linked to the obesity epidemic in North America.

Now that I’ve returned to Vancouver, I plan to try to avoid food dyes, added flavors and sugars, and certainly GM products, in an effort not to regain any of the weight I lost overseas; but considering how widespread these additives are, it may be more difficult than it sounds.

I understand that schedules can be busy, and that we may not all have time to consider what the story behind our favorite snack-time food is, but I implore you to educate yourselves on what is happening to our food and to our bodies. Spend some time researching the health implications associated with letting these foods occupy our shelves and our fridges.

After all, you are what you eat.


  1. Thank you for this article, Tamara- what an amazing experience this must have been and your insight on the differences between European and North American food systems will hopefully begin more dialogues on the changes that need to be made, whether these are steps forward or steps backwards in terms of North American food technology. Hurrah for simple foods!