“Row upon row, aisle upon aisle of nutritional zero, gaily boxed and packed”
Not that anybody should be surprised by this, but it turns out that what we commonly regard as “healthy foods” may be nothing of the sort, not because the specific foods in question (fruits and vegetables) are wrongly characterized in and of themselves, but because farming techniques — the ones we’ve honed and developed over thousands of years of agricultural history, not just during the industrial age — have stripped many of the vital nutrients clean out of the actual produce that we buy from grocery stores:
We like the idea that food can be the answer to our ills, that if we eat nutritious foods we won’t need medicine or supplements. We have valued this notion for a long, long time. The Greek physician Hippocrates proclaimed nearly 2,500 years ago: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Today, medical experts concur. If we heap our plates with fresh fruits and vegetables, they tell us, we will come closer to optimum health.
This health directive needs to be revised. If we want to get maximum health benefits from fruits and vegetables, we must choose the right varieties. Studies published within the past 15 years show that much of our produce is relatively low in phytonutrients, which are the compounds with the potential to reduce the risk of four of our modern scourges: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. The loss of these beneficial nutrients did not begin 50 or 100 years ago, as many assume. Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers.
These insights have been made possible by new technology that has allowed researchers to compare the phytonutrient content of wild plants with the produce in our supermarkets. The results are startling.
. . . The United States Department of Agriculture exerts far more effort developing disease-resistant fruits and vegetables than creating new varieties to enhance the disease resistance of consumers. In fact, I’ve interviewed U.S.D.A. plant breeders who have spent a decade or more developing a new variety of pear or carrot without once measuring its nutritional content.
We can’t increase the health benefits of our produce if we don’t know which nutrients it contains. Ultimately, we need more than an admonition to eat a greater quantity of fruits and vegetables: we need more fruits and vegetables that have the nutrients we require for optimum health.
— Jo Robinson, “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food,” The New York Times, May 25, 2013
Meanwhile, the manufactured food industry has spent decades honing its skill at manipulating our perceptions of food and eating, the better to convince us to keep buying and eating more, more, more. This has evolved, or rather devolved, right down to a finely nuanced propaganda campaign conducted largely by means of a whole new language of food that’s used inside the industry itself:
The massive popularity of these so-called junk foods (a phrase that was added to the language menu in 1973) is a testament to the food industry’s talent for creating feel-good food. Our diets may be richer for it, but so too is the English language, which now boasts many tasty new words and phrases cooked up by food industry scientists and technologists. (I’m indebted to New York Times reporter Michael Moss, particularly for his fascinating new book Salt Sugar Fat, for many of these terms.)
Food companies don’t want their customers to be obese, of course, but what they are dedicated to is increasing stomach share, or the market share within a food category . . . . [P]rocessed-food companies increasingly turn to their legions of scientists to produce foods that we can’t resist. These food geeks tweak their products by varying the levels of the three so-called pillar ingredients — salt, sugar, and fat.
Why not just crank these ingredients up to 11 if we crave them so much? It turns out that although we generally do like more of them, when you go past a certain amount, we like the result less. That optimum amount of salt, sugar, or fat is called the bliss point. Scientists also adjust these ingredients as well as factors such as crunchiness to produce a mouthfeel — that is, the way the food feels inside a person’s mouth — that causes consumers to crave more. Technologists can also induce a flavor burst by altering the size and shape of the salt crystals themselves so that they basically assault the taste buds into submission.
The holy grail of junk-food science is vanishing caloric density, where the food melts in your mouth so quickly that the brain is fooled into thinking it’s hardly consuming any calories at all, so it just keeps snacking . . . . [T]he real goals are either passive overeating, which is the excessive eating of foods that are high in fat because the human body is slow to recognize the caloric content of rich foods, or auto-eating: that is, eating without thinking or without even being hungry.
— Paul McFedries, “The Jargon of Junk Food,” IEEE Spectrum, May 31, 2013
In 1972, Theodore Roszak wrote a brief reflection on the fairly apocalyptic state of mainstream food culture in America and technological society at large. It was later included in one of the most wrenching and inspiring gut punches of a book you could ever read, Less Is More: An Anthology of Ancient & Modern Voices Raised in Praise of Simplicity, assembled and edited by Goldian VandenBroeck and bearing an introduction by none other than E. F. Schumacher. I invite or dare you to read it and contemplate how far we have failed to come — despite the various counter-trends that have arisen in America since 1972 (farmer’s markets, the organic food movement, foodies and foodism, etc.) — since Roszak first offered this disturbing thought experiment as a diagnosis and indictment of how industrial-technocratic civilization has mistreated other peoples and the natural world while developing a wholesale case of neurotic self-delusion about its own moral character:
Those who anguish over a starving mankind on the easy assumption that there just is not enough land and resources to feed the hungry might do well to pay a special kind of visit to their local supermarket. Not to shop, but to observe and to meditate on what they see before them and have always taken for granted. How much of the world’s land and labor was wasted producing the tobacco, the coffee, the tea, the refined cane sugars, the polished rice, the ice creams, the candies, the cookies, the soft drinks, the thousand and one non-nutritional luxuries one finds there? The grains that become liquor, the fruits and vegetables that lost all their food value going into cans and jars full of syrups and condiments, the potatoes and corn that became various kinds of chips, crackles, crunchies, and yum-yums, the cereals that became breakfast novelties less nourishing (as a matter of scientific fact) than the boxes they are packed in, the wheat that became white breads and pastry flours . . . . How many forests perished to package these non-foods? How many resources went into transporting and processing them? (And the less nutrition, the more processing.) How much skilled energy went into advertising and merchandising them? There they stand in our markets, row upon row, aisle upon aisle of nutritional zero, gaily boxed and packed, and costing those fancy prices we then gripe about as the high cost of living.
It is out of such routine extravagances that the technocracy weaves its spell over our allegiance . . . and then assures us we are the hope of the world.
For a visual commentary, see the last half of this two-minute excerpt from Koyaanisqatsi: