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Anthropology in Practice

Anthropology in Practice

Exploring the human condition.

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

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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

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

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