Who are you when you eat kale chips?

by Michelle

Recently, I made kale chips and I felt a little weird about it.

I made them for a session with a client, where we ate kale chips together. I am such a curmudgeon sometimes about trying new things, and I’m grateful to my clients for pushing me out of my comfort zone. Last month it was green smoothies, now kale chips. Both times, I experienced the heady rush of diving headfirst into the Virtuous Internet Foods zeitgeist.

I have been aware of the existence of kale chips for a long time. If you spend any time on the internet at all, how could you miss them? They are posted on Facebook pretty regularly, seem popular on recipe sites, and I’m sure there has been plenty of Instagram kale chip documentation.

But for those who have missed it, kale chips are pieces of kale leaf that have been covered in oil and salt and baked until crispy, rather like potato chips. They are to potato chips what raisins are to Halloween candy; they are the carob to Hershey’s milk chocolate — good in their own right, possessing similar qualities…and still somehow not quite the same. They are the kind of snack Dawn Schafer would bring to a Babysitters Club sleepover.

I’ve been aware of what I will refer to as the Greater Internet Kale Phenomenon for a lot longer. I made a passing reference to it last year, and soon after that, I happened to read a brilliantly funny blog post that riffed on the kale phenomenon.

So what is the deal with kale? Why are we (well, I’m projecting here, this is really all about me, sorry) hearing so much about it, and why does it seem to have taken the place at the top of the Virtuous Foods Pyramid – ousting former favourites like orange juice, spinach, and whole grains, along the way?

The straight answer would seem to be: micronutrients. Kale is one of the much-cherished dark, leafy greens that people love to tell each other to eat as often as possible. A quick perusal of my internet girlfriend, the USDA National Nutrient Database, demonstrates that raw kale contains a whack-ton of vitamin A, and doesn’t show up too poorly on calcium, potassium and vitamin K, either. There’s even some vitamin C in there, and the usual smattering of B vitamins (which seem to appear in every food I look up, everywhere, since forever.)

However, I’m unconvinced that micronutrients are the whole reason behind kale’s ongoing debutante ball. At least one sketchy-looking website informs me that the phytochemicals in kale will prevent cancer, and will also shrink existing tumours, but PEN is silent on the matter, other than saying that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables in accordance with Canada’s Food Guide may help to reduce one’s risk of cancer.

(Which is another way of saying, there is not enough experimental or other evidence on this topic to form a solid, official recommendation for various phytochemicals, so hedge your bets by eating enough of everything. And beware of scammy cancer advice on the internet.)

So, micronutrients and phytochemicals aside, what else is so great about kale? Here’s a thought experiment:

Would eating kale chips feel somehow different than eating a calorically equivalent amount of potato chips with a phytochemical-micronutrient chaser in pill form?

Now, some people would balk at the supplement pill, claiming it couldn’t possibly contain all the goodness of real, live kale, but for the sake of argument let’s just pretend that, in this particular fantasy scenario, it does. Magic has been performed, and all the goodness of kale has been reduced to pill form, minus the calories. For an added bonus, pretend the supplement was created in an organic, environmentally sustainable and fair-trade manner, sourced from local ingredients by workers earning a living wage.

All that remains is to eat your potato chips and take your pill and feel equally virtuous to your kale chip-eating alternate self. Would you?

Some would, I know, because people vary. Some people’s food concerns really do begin and end with the issues I’ve neatly dispatched with my magical imaginary wonderpill.

But a good many of us (myself included, I suspect) would not. We might still feel vaguely more virtuous while eating the actual, honest-to-goodness kale, and vaguely more dirty eating the potato chip-wonderpill combo – especially if there were anyone around to watch us.

This tells me that there may be more going on than the mere nutrition, or even the production ethics, of kale. There may be a potent symbolic meaning attached to kale, among certain people, at this time.

Well, what is it?

What does it mean to eat kale? And, more to the point, what kind of person are you when you do?

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Free association in comments.

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