Thursday, February 21, 2013

Food For Thought

Junk food is an inescapable fact of modern life. It's there when you drive down the highway: huge, tall symbols decorate the freeways of America, dotting the landscape with cheerful redheads or golden arches. It's in the aisles of our grocery stores: pre-packaged foods that promise to be quick to prepare and delicious to eat. It's probably there when we open our own fridge and pantries at home - who can say they've never side-eyed a bag a bag of Doritos or a box of ice-cream sandwiches at the local freshmart? It dances on our TVs, it's a part of almost every entertainment we indulge ourselves with (see: movie popcorn, hotdogs at the ball game, Popsicles by the poolside, and myriad other treats and "once in a while" foods that end up being a weekly, if not daily, staple), and increasingly takes the place of actual meals in our snacking society.

This weekend's New York Times Magazine cover story is a critical look at the junk- and snack-food industries in America today. It's supposed to be an indictment, a stirring rallying cry, and an explanation of why four kids out of class of twenty are clinically obese, and why type 2 diabetes threatens or is diagnosed in over 100 million Americans (that is three Canadas, right there). It goes behind the scenes at the biggest food purveyors in the country - and by extension, the world - to show that, these days, food is a whole new kettle of fish.

To which I respond: duh. The article goes to great lengths to expose the millions of dollars that food companies spend developing successful new product - from ingredient tweaking to colour preference, from making the crucial switch from marketing a product to overworked mothers to marketing it to their overstimulated children, from packaging to the PSI of a chip's perfect crunch (four, if you're interested), the article rips back the curtain and says, "Aha!"

This, of course, isn't exactly news. Two years ago, The New Yorker ran an article about how to design the perfect diet cola, and it touched on many of the same themes: the masquerade of the artificial as the real, the desire to please the consumer, the capture of a larger market share, and the sheer number of manhours and dollars that have been poured into ensuring a food is perfect for our shopping lists, not our bodies.

The frame around the portraits both The New Yorker and the NYT paint of the snack- and junk-food industries is that all this work is being done by big businesses. The writers seem slightly shocked that the food we buy (and eat) has been refined and optimized for the consumer's maximum pleasure, and not for things like, you know, nutrition. Or health.

And I would ask, when is the last time a multinational corporation operated with your best interests, and not its own bottom line, at the forefront of its concern?

It boggles my mind that people are surprised that food these days is commodified this way. Of course it is. Everything is. Everything we buy has been marketed to us, branded for us, and helps us define who we are: Mac vs. PC, Star Trek vs. Star Wars, Lululemon yoga or Reebok Crossfit.

Theoretically, food is supposed to be above that. At the very least, we're supposed to be able to recognize which items are good for us - healthful, nutritious, sustaining - and which might be better as an occasional treat, or something to avoid altogether. The author of "The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food" points out that Yoplait yogurt, which has been positioned in the market as a healthy food, has twice the sugar of Lucky Charms, the breakfast cereal good moms don't buy their kids because it'll rot their teeth. But we see yogurt as healthy, and so we don't bother to read the label. He writes that Lunchables, that covetable middle school meal, was designed to have a long shelf life and to take advantage of synergy (the makers of the "cheese product" having been acquired by the Lunchables folks); carrots were rejected as too likely to spoil. But damned if they aren't convenient, right?

There have been all kinds of discussions around food, consumption, bodies, and the modern American. More and more people are pointing out that large segments of the population live in "food deserts," areas where it's tough to find a vegetable: inner-city neighbourhoods served by bodegas instead of grocery stores, or suburbs ringed with fast food outlets.  They point out that fat kids usually turn into fat adults. Our culture shames fat people while needling all of us to keep eating. It makes it hard to get healthy foods, or even recognize unhealthy foods, because savvy companies have invested millions in keeping us tethered to our shopping lists. As a result, we're fatter than ever, and gaining. It's because of our sedentary office job, the 500-calorie coffees, how expensive produce has become, and besides, picking up a cheeseburger is easier than roasting a fish, and it's my choice. Right?

But it's also us. We buy this stuff. We keep it in our homes, we feed it to our kids. And it's so easy. I bet you can walk 20 minutes in any direction and come back with a bag of potato chips. Incidentally, the article calls chips the most addictive of all the junk foods (which makes me feel less horrible about my shame-scarfing of Doritos; I recently told my boyfriend that we couldn't keep Doritos in the house, because I feel powerless in their presence); this is because chips don't activate the satiety triggers in your brain. You can keep eating them, without feeling full, until you accidentally shit the couch.

So, what's the solution? Well, when our society finally figured out that smoking was, indeed, pretty bad for you, we put warning signs on the cigarette packs, even though the tobacco industry strenuously objected: These will kill you, slowly, and with great expense to your family. Smoking rates have subsequently fallen.When Finland started labelling high-sodium foods, the nation's cardiovascular health improved. Pointing out dangerous stuff helps people avoid it.

I'm not suggesting the ostracization of obese or overweight individuals; that's not okay, and I doubt that many obese folks are choosing to be overweight in the same way smokers choose to light up. But collectively, we need to do more to fight the shitty food that beckons us from every shelf. We need to get thoroughly smart about our food, in a systemic, holistic sense. Teach home ec students what an avocado is, not how to bake a damned cupcake. Tell your teenagers that if they want tortilla chips, they're going to have to make them in the oven themselves. Tell your kids that the days of mac 'n' cheese and Go-Gurt are over. Get them to read the ingredients out loud; if they can't pronounce them, it doesn't go in the cart. Junk food should be something we look back on with slightly disgusted nostalgia, the same way we look back on Jell-O with meat in it, or headcheese, or that foam fad.

The NYT article was the right first step: identify the enemy. But we also need a rallying cry, and an army of food soldiers. We shall fight on the drive-thrus, we shall fight on the grocery stores, we shall fight in the 7-11s.