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Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: Will Industrialized Foods Be the End of Us?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Cereal aisle in an American supermarket (Creative Commons).

There’s a sign hanging in my local deli that offers customers some tips on what to expect in terms of quality and service. It reads:

Your order:

  • Can be fast and good, but it won’t be cheap.
  • Can be fast and cheap, but it won’t be good.
  • Can be good and cheap, but it won’t be fast.

Pick two—because you aren’t going to get it good, cheap, and fast.

The Good/Fast/Cheap Model is certainly not new. It’s been a longstanding principle in design, and has been applied to many other things. The idea is a simple one: we can’t have our cake and eat it too. But that doesn’t mean we can’t or won’t try—and no where does this battle rage more fiercely than when it comes to fast food.

In a landscape dominated by golden arches, dollar menus, and value meals serving up to 2,150 calories, fast food has been much maligned. It’s fast, it’s cheap, but we know it’s generally not good for us. And yet, well-touted statistics report that Americans are spending more than ever on fast food:

In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food; in 2000, they spent more than $110 billion. Americans now spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars. They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music—combined.[i]

With waistlines growing at an alarming rate, fast food has become an easy target. Concern has spurned the emergence of healthier chains (where it’s good and fast, but not cheap), half servings, and posted calorie counts. We talk about awareness and “food prints” enthusiastically, aspire to incorporate more organic produce in our diets, and struggle to encourage others to do the same even while we acknowledge that differing economic means may be a limiting factor.

In short, we long to return to a simpler food time—when local harvests were common and more than adequately provided the sustenance we needed, and we relied less on processed, industrialized foods. We long for a time when home-cooked meals, from scratch, were the norm—and any number of cooking shows on the American airways today work to convince us that it’s easy to do. We’re told to shun fast food, and while it’s true that modern, fast, processed foods represent an extreme in portion size and nutrition, it is also true that our nostalgia is misguided: raw, unprocessed foods—the “natural” that we yearn for—were a challenge for our ancestors. In fact, these foods were downright dangerous.

Step back in time to when fresh meat rotted before it could be consumed and you still consumed it, to when fresh fruits were sour, vegetables were bitter, and when roots and tubers were poisonous. Nature, ever fickle, could withhold her bounty as easily as she could share it: droughts wreaked havoc on produce, storms hampered fishing, cows stopped giving milk, and hens stopped laying.[ii] What would you do then?

We have been processing foods since our earliest days because our survival has hinged on it:

To make food tasty, safe, digestible and healthy, our forebears bred, ground, soaked, leached, curdled, fermented, and cooked naturally occurring plants and animals until they were literally beaten into submission. To lower toxin levels, they cooked plants, treated them with clay (the Kaopectate effect), leached them with water, acid fruits and vinegars, and alkaline lye. They intensively bred maize to the point that it could not reproduce without human help. They created sweet oranges and juicy apples and non-bitter legumes, happily abandoning their more natural but less tasty ancestors.[iii]

It is no secret that processed foods kept better, but they also tasted better. There was a time when the natural that we aspire to was a symbol of poverty—the last resort of the poor and starving. Having to rely on local foods meant you lacked the means to pursue variation. In the 5th-century BC, Celtic princes in present-day Burgundy enjoyed Greek wines, while the Greeks were trying to adapt the peaches, apricots, and citrons that would characterize their sauces. The wide trade of spices in the Common Era provided more than flavor, they also helped preserve foods.

“Fast foods” like ground barley and roasted maize (which are still around today) fed armies, hunters, fishermen, and shepherds. In urban settings, ready cooked meals fed tenement dwellers who may not have had the facilities to prepare homemade fare. Fried foods, which we regard with well-practiced grimaces in mixed company, have existed in some form throughout the ages: “doughnuts in Europe, churros in Mexico, andagi in Okinawa, and sev in India.”[iv] Today, as we decry sugary, caffeinated drinks, we seem to have forgotten that for a long time beer and wine were the accepted norm in lieu of water, which was polluted and carried any number of gut-wrenching bacteria, which we can easily be exposed to even today.

The great nutrition divide paralleled distributions in wealth. Peasants who worked the land relied on gruel and flatbreads to see them through the winters—their bounties were collected and stored to feed city residents.[v] The best foods were prepared in the kitchens of royalty, aristocracy, and merchants—those who had the means to purchase excess and diversity. The industrialization of food in the 1880s put more edible foods within the reach of more people. Reapers, tractors, combines, and fertilizers increased production, and long-distance transportation carried fresh and canned meats, fruits, vegetables, and milk across oceans and borders:

Instead of starving, the poor of the industrialized world survived and thrived. In Britain the retail price of food in a typical work-man’s budget fell by a third between 1877 and 1887 (though he would still spend seventy-one percent of his income on food and drink). In 1898 in the United States a dollar bought forty-two percent more milk, fifty-one percent more coffee, a third more beef, twice as much sugar, and twice as much flour as in 1872.[vi]

Fish and chips (Creative Commons/Chris Jones).

All of this is not to deny that there are not problems with industrialized foods, but to emphasize the ways in which we have denaturalized the natural, and this applies to whole meals as well as individual food items. What we think of as native or ethnic foods are recent developments that came about as a result of industrialization and urbanization. There’s nothing more English than fish and chips, right? This dish was adapted by the working class in the 19th-century from the Sephardic Jews who lived in East London. Indian Tandoori chicken—which is a favorite of mine—was created by Hindu Punjabis who fled to Pakistan during the Partition and learned to cook on the Muslim-style Tandoor. These are the histories we overlook when nostalgia drives us to Whole Foods.

Nostalgia also comes with a hefty price tag, which is something that is rarely discussed. “Slow Food,” for example, which celebrates home-cooked, artisanally produced foods and heirloom varieties from local sources targets consumers who can afford heirloom items and artisan products. There are problems with modern industrialized and fast foods for sure: antibiotic-laden meats, environmental degradation, and ethical concerns about slaughterhouses. But to merely dismiss fast and industrialized foods as problematic overlooks the ways we have tried throughout history to improve upon that which we currently long for—which would not have otherwise been edible.

Fast foods and industrialized foods can play an important role in feeding different populations. They will not be the end of us, and pantries that include peanut butter and tuna may provide the primary means of sustenance for some people. Fast food establishments certainly need to be reformed, but it seems to be more pressing that we change our attitudes about foods—about what’s acceptable and what’s not, and in what portions. How do we demand better quality without sacrificing convenience or affordability? Or is good eating to remain a wealthy privilege?

Lunch line at a Halal food truck in lower Manhattan. (Credit: KDCosta)

The rise of the food cart in urban settings offers a possibly overlooked alternative to the chain restaurant, offering diverse flavors well within many budgetary confines. In the southwestern United States, particularly Texas and California, “taco trucks” serving Mexican foods are immensely popular. In the northeast, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, and a variety of other ethnic foods are available from food trucks. The Financial District in NYC boasts a barbecue truck, burger truck, and a vegetarian truck. In addition, Halal vendors service up chicken or lamb over rice and sometimes fresh biryani and kebabs. There was also a local Trinidadian truck, serving stew chicken, curry chicken or beef with roti, currance rolls, and Solo drinks. The Trinidadian truck succumbed to fierce competition from a Jamaican truck, however—the spicy jerk chicken drew customers away from the festively decorated red and black Trini truck.

If current franchises cannot appropriately adjust dietary offerings, perhaps these sorts of establishments can gain a foothold in communities where fresh fruits and vegetables—the trimmings of healthy foods—are hard to come by. They are an age-old tradition—descendents from the original fast food purveyors, and able to feed customers thanks in part to the innovations we have made in preservation. They have faced an uphill battle in gaining acceptance in some places, but it’s worth noting that they can feed people far more economically than the standards set by the romanticized notions of our food history.

 


Notes:

[i] Schlosser, Eric (2002). Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. New York: Harper Perennial.

[ii] Laudan, R. (2001). A Plea for Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love New, Fast, Processed Food. Gastronomica, 1 (1), 36-44 DOI: 10.1525/gfc.2001.1.1.36

[iii] Laudan: 38.

[iv], [v] Laudan: 39

[vi] Laudan: 41

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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  1. 1. kclancy 10:03 pm 07/27/2011

    What a neat post. I like how this dovetails with the work of Richard Wrangham and Bill Leonard — the former on the study of the importance of cooking food in human evolution, the latter on global variation in diet. And I don’t mean to put words in your mouth Krystal, but as I was reading this, I felt like this also indirectly addresses the Paleo diet. I’ve heard Bill Leonard talk about how there is no one ancestral human diet — this goes against the basic premise of the Paleo diet. I actually do think the Paleo diet is probably healthy for a lot of people, but at the same time, it is a mistake to turn away from the processing and mastery of our environment that makes us human… and may help us feed large numbers of people in the coming years.

    Also, the cereal image you used made me smile, because it focused on Chex, one of the few brands out there that has several gluten free options! I happen to like Cinnamon Chex the best :) .

    Link to this
  2. 2. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 9:42 am 07/28/2011

    Thanks, Kate! You make an interesting point about the Paleo diet, which I admit that I know only the barest facts about, but it seems to fit into the whole idea of what we perceive constitutes healthier eating: eating more fruits and vegetables, and fresher, less processed foods in general. I think it’s fantastic that we have the ability to enjoy diverse food options thanks to agricultural advances, but we also have to recognize that there isn’t parity in accessibility to these sorts of resources. When we stigmatize certain classes of foods, we also stigmatize certain groups of people–and there’s enough bias and anger to go around as it is. Joyce Huang at Chasing James Beard makes an interesting point about the popularity of food markets and night markets elsewhere (they’re a staple of Anthony Bourdain’s and Andrew Zimmern’s shows), questioning why we are hesitant to implement these sources of inexpensive, fresh foods in the US. Based on the controversy I’ve seen surrounding food carts, it appears to be a question of competition–a concern about restaurants and eateries losing customers. But if access to these sorts of foods is really the cornerstone to better eating, then perhaps we need to be exploring all alternatives in addition to raising the standards for the industrialized foods and fast foods that we currently have.

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  3. 3. Hasufin 3:55 pm 07/28/2011

    It’s interesting to note how centralized our food production infrastructure is:
    http://www.rense.com/general7/whyy.htm

    Yes, that’s right. Most “processed” food gets its taste from half a dozen factories in the world.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 4:49 pm 07/28/2011

    French fries and aromatics in the same article. I doubt I’ll be having fries any time soon.

    On a more serious note, your link to Schlosser highlights an important point: the ways in which cost cutting measures have hindered the healthfulness of fast and industrialized foods. Can the bottom line be balances with consumer needs? I suspect that this will not be accomplished without some regulation, but it will likely not go anywhere until people understand what they’re getting as compared to to what they were getting. I do wonder if people would care, but if we’re truly interested in increasing access to healthy meals, it bears analyzing where things went “wrong.”

    Being a fast food nation ties in with the ways in which our society functions: The 24-hr lifestyle of NYC lends itself to 3 am meals from street vendors (who can make a small fortune if they position themselves near clubs and bars in the wee hours of the morning). I don’t see the fast food culture disappearing, but I would like to think that my fries smell like fries because, well, they’re fries.

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  5. 5. Hasufin 9:31 am 07/29/2011

    I think our “ground level” food-making decisions have relatively little to do with the healthiness of the meal and more to do with how appetizing we find the food. That we find a food appetizing for artificial reasons rather than natural isn’t really much help: french fries made with organic potatoes fried in beef tallow is still pretty unhealthy!

    Link to this
  6. 6. J4zonian 5:57 pm 07/29/2011

    I’m disturbed by this trend at SA,
    ( http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/2011/07/18/mythbusting-101-organic-farming-conventional-agriculture/#comment-50 )
    to post fluffy articles with a tone of friendliness and agreement, and here and there an explicit statement of one-sided, mostly industry-supporting philosophy. I’m especially disturbed when those statements are blatantly untrue, besides. While there are examples in virtually every sentence in the article of falsehoods, misleading statements and vaguely-off implications, I’ll just mention a few.

    “Instead of starving, the poor of the industrialized world survived and thrived.” Really? Really???!!! Didn’t Charles Dickens have something to say about that in a book or 2? Isn’t the system of worker protection and food and product safety regulation currently being destroyed by corporate Republicans (and most Democrats) a direct result of the reaction against the horrors of the system under which those poor people “thrived” for more than a century?” Didn’t most of them in fact suffer horrible lives and die young under that system? Did you learn your history from Disney cartoons?

    “There are problems with modern industrialized and fast foods for sure: antibiotic-laden meats, environmental degradation, and ethical concerns about slaughterhouses. But to merely dismiss fast and industrialized foods as problematic overlooks the ways we have tried throughout history to improve upon that which we currently long for—which would not have otherwise been edible.”

    What exactly does that mean? We should ignore toxins in our food and the unjust and destructive ways they’re produced because at some time in the distant romanticized past someone somewhere tried to improve some kind of food? Utterly absurd.

    To lump all processing and farm and distribution improvements and even refrigeration together and imply that it’s a choice between starving peasants eating rotting meat and today’s wonderful system is equally absurd.

    Even with the real disagreement that exists, it’s actually quite easy to differentiate advantageous food processing leading to healthy food from industrial processes that profit large corporations but harm everyone from farmer to factory worker to eater to displaced indigenous person… etc. If you want to write a worthwhile article on that subject, write one that points to the future—a system of local organic small-farm renewable-energy permaculture with a distribution backup system to prevent famines, within a truly democratic system of governance dedicated to equality. Write about food technology, ancient and modern, that helps the important goals of today’s world—-avoidance of climate catastrophe and the creation of a just, ecological life for all.

    There are too many places to even point to but the constant tone of this article is apologist and dismissive, excusing and minimizing the harm the corporate industrialization of food has wreaked on people, ecosystems and the biosphere. It makes me wonder if Scientific American is being funded by Monsanto or other corporations to serve as PR softeners for their harsh destruction of democracy and life on Earth.
    And just one more example… Where’s the rest of the following sentence? It is in fact, exactly to deny and avoid confronting the problems with industrialized foods:

    “All of this is not to deny that there are not problems with industrialized foods, but to emphasize the ways in which we have denaturalized the natural, and this applies to whole meals as well as individual food items.”

    Link to this
  7. 7. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 3:50 pm 08/1/2011

    I’m not clear if J4zonian intended for me to respond to these comments or to elicit feedback from other readers as this user does not address me directly–although he/she is certainly invited to do so. Nonetheless, I will deal with a few of the critiques leveled at this article, and hopefully you will bear with my if my tone seems friendly and agreeable.

    1. “Instead of starving, the poor of the industrialized world survived and thrived.”

    You will note that this selection is taken from a published article in Gastronomica, and continues with information on rising wages and changing food budgets. So yes, really–the poor did survive and thrive. I know it seems hard to believe, particularly if your mind is inundated with images of Dickensian England, but fewer people starved to death and the rate of nutrition-related diseases also fell. Was it perfect? Of course not: the poor and working classes did not suddenly find themselves portly and suffering the problems that excess brings–but having to rely less on mead and beer as a primary source of nourishment during the colder months in the Northern hemisphere when meager stores were diminished represented comfort in a time when having a loaf of bread in the house was considered a major accomplishment.

    2. “There are problems with modern industrialized and fast foods for sure: antibiotic-laden meats, environmental degradation, and ethical concerns about slaughterhouses. But to merely dismiss fast and industrialized foods as problematic overlooks the ways we have tried throughout history to improve upon that which we currently long for—which would not have otherwise been edible.”

    What exactly does that mean? We should ignore toxins in our food and the unjust and destructive ways they’re produced because at some time in the distant romanticized past someone somewhere tried to improve some kind of food? Utterly absurd.

    This does not invite you to discount the issues with pesticides, but gets to the context and point of this article, which quite plainly, you seem to have missed, J4zonian, in your haste to point out its fluffiness. This article presnts a historical and sociological look at the ways in which we have shaped our foods, as this point is further emphasized and explicitly stated in the following sentence, which you also take issue with:
    Where’s the rest of the following sentence? It is in fact, exactly to deny and avoid confronting the problems with industrialized foods:

    “All of this is not to deny that there are not problems with industrialized foods, but to emphasize the ways in which we have denaturalized the natural, and this applies to whole meals as well as individual food items.”

    The “rest” of this discussion–I’ll ignore your grammatical critique–goes on to discuss how our views on some “ethnic” foods are false, being in many cases the result of a mixing of culture and environment and availability of foodstuffs. And again, ties into the larger discussion unfolding here about our relationship with food, and the ways in which we have manipulated our environments to serve our needs.

    3. If you want to write a worthwhile article on that subject, write one that points to the future—a system of local organic small-farm renewable-energy permaculture with a distribution backup system to prevent famines, within a truly democratic system of governance dedicated to equality. Write about food technology, ancient and modern, that helps the important goals of today’s world—-avoidance of climate catastrophe and the creation of a just, ecological life for all.

    No thank you. This isn’t the article that I set out to write. I have written the piece that I intended: a socio-historical piece on our relationship with the Natural. However, I would recommend that you consider writing that piece and perhaps contacting the SciAm guest blog to see if they would be willing to host it. As you feel quite strongly about the issue, you can perhaps expand on your critiques here with statistics that may present a stronger case for disagreement.

    4. Finally, I note that you do not at all take up the issue of cost implications that I discuss in the latter half of the article. Nor do you mention the alternative that I draw attention to in the form of food carts and fresh markets (which are mentioned in the comments between Hasufin and myself). While there are problems with the ways in which industrialized foods are prepared, for many people, they remain their primary access to foods either for economic reasons or because they simply do not have access to fresh produce and green markets.

    To simply holdfast to the idea that our food was better in the past will ignore certain histories. The Great Irish Famine, for example, occurred before spraying to protect the crop was common practice. And it’s unlikely that you would want to eat an apple in its original form.

    It is a dangerous idea that marginalizes people who cannot access farmers’s markets and food trucks and who rely on pre-prepared foods for their meals, which is something that people have done for hundreds of years. This article doesn’t denounce local-food initiatives or small farmers, but encourages readers to think about populations are served by fast and industrialized foods. In some places, city officials and restauranteurs have hampered the food truck business for fear that it will cut into culinary commerce. This seems a shortsighted strategy when food trucks could help feed people cheaply with fresh ingredients that they might not otherwise have.

    We have been trying to manufacture better foods for a long time. The solution will not come from a small sector–the solution will come from multiple, creative sources that can serve the people most affected.

    If there are concerns about the editorial persuasions of SciAm blogs and SciAm funding, please read Face the Conversation.

    Link to this
  8. 8. kclancy 11:26 pm 08/1/2011

    Sounds like this most recent commenter needs to read Bora’s missive Blogs: face the conversation: http://bit.ly/o3ImDn

    Link to this
  9. 9. mrosennc 11:22 pm 08/11/2011

    The issues surrounding food are enormous. One problem with fast-food and industrially produced food is one of degree. There is too much of it, it is produced in a manner that destroys the complex nature of nutrition. It negatively impacts environment, economy and community. It has destroyed what we used to call a family meal, which is now the cardboard box we eat from in the car, in front of a tv or computer game or on the run.

    At the alter-of-the-god-of-convenience we have sacrificed our health, our environment and our families. I agree feeding the poor is a real problem. On any given day we throw out 20% of the food prepared. At heart of this food issue is our inability to figure out a compassionte, fair and humane system of distribution.

    Reading The End of Food by Paul Roberts, he makes the point – food does not lend itself to the industrial business model of efficiency and mass production. We are painfully learning that lesson.

    Fast food is the consumption of two products – petroleum and corn. Soon, if research continues we will eliminate one of those, with a direct line from oil field to food laboratory then to the fast food box.

    The solutions are complex, as others have suggested here, creativity and multiple approaches will be required. I am a firm believer that local adaptations are the best. This is the diversity of different food cultures. Eskimos do not eat chili peppers. An industrial complex of food production has and will continue to destroy local adaptation. The strength of life lies in variety and diversity, so it is with food.

    Finally, fast food does not satisfy the soul. Who we are is what we eat – we have become a nation where 1/3 of the population is obese. In western North Carolina 1 in 5 requires food assistance. We are stressed and unhappy. How bizarre.

    There is no going back, but the way forward is not through greater efficiency of production or more profit for a few. The fires being set by the citizens of the world are about what they eat, not just about “freedom”.

    Working in the field of food, nutrition and community for 40 years, I see the unfortunate impact of poor food or no food on peoples’ lives.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 11:43 pm 08/17/2011

    Mark, thanks for sharing your thoughts and some reading materials with us. I am also interested in local adaptations, but believe it’s too late to pull back – people may not know where their orange or bananas come from, but they won’t give them up easily.

    One of the more interesting things I read while reviewing material for this post was the ways in which diversity and immigration led to an expansion of food: new dishes, expanded palates, etc. This is exciting, while fast food, unfortunately, often times is not. We have such a complex relationship with food. It is tied to our identities, both collectively and individually, and plays an important role in memory. Your point about feeding the soul is an important one.

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