Sunday, October 18, 2009

Food, glorious food

A few years ago I went on the South Beach Diet. It was a great diet, the food was yummy, I lost a bunch of weight, and I should be on it right now, but it forbids drinking for the first two weeks and it's football season. Besides the weight I lost, I noticed three things about the diet:

1. I had to go to the grocery store all the damn time.
2. It was expensive and took time out of my day.
3. The only things I bought from the middle of the store were spices and sugar free Jello Pudding.

It turns out that this is not an accident.

My brother persuaded me to read The Omnivore's Dilemma a few months ago, and now I kind of feel like kicking his ass for making me want to be a farmer. And a hunter, and possibly a mushroom gatherer. (Not that I've never gathered a mushroom before, but that's a completely different subject.) If you haven't read the book, I highly recommend it. It's not really like The Jungle, or Diet for a New America -- the type of book that will gross you out to the point that you never want to eat again. It's more like Super Size Me: Behind the Music. The author builds a compelling case that the American food industry is a perfect storm of government waste, corporate greed, environmental irresponsibility and petroleum use, and that we are all paying the price.

American food has been industrialized and commodotized so that it is cheap to produce, easy to transport, easy to store and easy to sell. Note that taste, nutrition and cultural considerations do not appear on the list. Would it surprise you to know that "natural raspberry flavoring" probably has no part of a raspberry in it? It surprised me.

The New York Times reported recently that the new Smart Choices food labeling program, which features a green check mark on the front of packaging so that busy consumers can know what is good for them even if their Mom is not there, considers Froot Loops to be sufficiently healthful to earn the mark. Defended by the President of the Smart Choices Board because its better than doughnuts, Froot Loops made the cut due to its added vitamins, and because the total sugars don't exceed the program guidelines.

She also said the program was influenced by research into consumer behavior that showed that, while shoppers wanted more information, they did not want to hear negative messages or feel their choices were being dictated to them. So in other words, we want to buy what we were going to buy anyway but feel like it is good for us. I mean, come on. I've eaten my share of Cocoa Puffs, but I never tried to convince myself they were health food.

Apparently, one big driving force behind all of this is a system of government subsidies that pays farmers to produce more corn, and to a lesser degree, soybeans. While this sounds like a good thing for farmers, it actually drives the price of these commodity grains ever lower, putting the dwindling number of farmers deeper in debt. The only people who really benefit are food manufacturers like Cargill, ADM and General Mills. The current system of farm subsidies has been in place since Earl Butz*, Nixon's Agriculture Secretary, reversed the government's policy on farm subsidies and told family farmers to "get big or get out."

So is there any benefit to all this? Well, remember my list from the South Beach Diet?

1. Whole food is bulky and it spoils. Industrial food is compact, stable and keeps for a long time.
2. Whole food is not really more expensive to grow, but subsidies and cheap petroleum make industrial food ingredients (in the form of corn) cheaper to buy than "real" food can be grown.
3. Industry means growth, so manufacturers have to find new things to sell to get us to buy more and eat more. There is very little unprocessed food in an American supermarket. This leads to innovation and ever cheaper food.

There is a lot of evidence that the industrialization of food is at least partially responsible for many of the health problems that Americans suffer more than others in the world. And there is no question that it costs all of us in the form of taxes, petroleum use and environmental damage. It's up to each of us to decide if the trade-off is worth it. As for me, I'm making my own bread, shopping more at the farmer's market, and trying to think more about what I eat.
* Butz eventually got fired for telling an extremely (unfunny and) racist joke to a reporter on an airplane. This has to throw his judgment into question, if nothing else.


  1. **sigh** If I wanted all that damn corn in my diet, I would eat corn and be done with it! Despite all the problems still inherent in it, I will continue to eat locally and organically as often as possible, and avoid processed food -- which judging by the markup of our grocery bills these days, we can't afford anyway. We seldom eat red meat. I think I could go vegan 90% of the time but Excy isn't on board with it. So I make meat a 'side' or filler and the bulk of a meal is plant based or pasta -- my little kidney isn't supposed to have much bread or diary - which sucks, 'cuz I love both -- wish I didn't like to eat as much as I do.....

  2. nice post. points well made in a context we all understand... i've done better in recent months. i consider it akin to making ninja-esque moves toward healthier eating. i go to the local market on weekends, but with winter coming, it's beans, bread and squash as the local crop dwindles for the year... will have to get more resourceful at the grocery store...

  3. Excellent post and a whole lot of truth, no pun intended. Well, maybe a little. Government has its hands into everything, why not our daily intake? They want us to buy, buy, buy and other than your house note, what's the next most expensive item on the ticket? Food. Scary stuff, actually.

  4. I shop local as often as possible. I shop local as often as possible.

    I keep telling myself that to stop the guilt of buying Kraft Mac and Cheese. I just love the spirals.

  5. Daisyfae: One advantage of living down here is that our local market has vegetables pretty late into the fall, but seasonal eating is definitely part of the equation.

    Aleta, making the food cheap is one of the tricks that keeps us from choosing something else, which is going to make it very difficult to create real change.

    Rassles, I Wonder Wye can tell you that I have been a sucker for Kraft Macaroni since they invented it, and I still eat it every so often. I try to focus on the successes. I think as long as we're working at it we are part of the solution, as they say.