A few years ago, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington named Adam Drewnowski ventured into the supermarket to solve a mystery. He wanted to figure out why it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth. For most of history, after all, the poor have typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit. So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
So who are these “food police” we’re starting to hear so much about? The term has begun showing up in media accounts of campaigns to reform school lunch or in discussions of the food industry’s growing legion of critics in the media. It’s the “food police” who want to get soda out of the schools and who argue that fast food outlets should disclose nutritional information about what they sell. The “food police” supposedly want to take away your constitutional right to a Big Mac — or, at the very least, your right to enjoy a Big Mac with a clear conscience.
Once upon a time Americans had a culture of food to guide us through the increasingly treacherous landscape of food choices: fat vs. carbs, organic vs. conventional, vegetarian vs. carnivorous. Culture in this case is just a fancy way of saying “your mom.” She taught us what to eat, when to eat it, how much of it to eat, even the order in which to eat it. But Mom’s influence over the dinner menu has proved no match for the $36 billion in food-marketing dollars ($10 billion directed to kids alone) designed to get us to eat more, eat all manner of dubious neofoods, and create entire new eating occasions, such as in the car.
Thanks for all the great posts from readers — you’ve given me a lot to chew on, and there are many questions and comments I plan to address in future posts. But for today, I want to look briefly at the “elitism” issue raised by several of you. As you will see it also ties into the good question raised by Paul Stamler about whether consumer action — voting with your forks — is adequate to the task of changing the American way of eating.
Carbophobia, the most recent in the centurylong series of food fads to wash over the American table, seems to have finally crested, though not before sweeping away entire bakeries and pasta companies in its path, panicking potato breeders into redesigning the spud, crumbling whole doughnut empires and, at least to my way of thinking, ruining an untold number of meals.
When I was a kid growing up in the early 60’s, anybody could have told you exactly what the future of food was going to look like. We’d seen “The Jetsons,” toured the 1964 World’s Fair, tasted the culinary fruits (or at least fruit flavors) of the space program, and all signs pointed to a single outcome: the meal in a pill, washed down, perhaps, with next-generation Tang.
Add another to the string of superlatives wreathing the world’s greatest power: Americans are now the fattest people on earth. (Actually a handful of South Sea Islanders still outweigh us, but we’re gaining.) Six out of every 10 of us—and fully a quarter of our children—are now overweight. Just since 1970 the proportion of American children who are overweight has doubled, a rate of increase that suggests the fattening of America has a specific history as well as a biology.
Almost overnight, the amount and variety of organic food on offer in my local supermarket has mushroomed. Fresh produce, milk, eggs, cereal, frozen food, even junk food—all of it now has its own organic doppelganger, and more often than not these products wind up in my shopping cart. I like buying organic, for the usual salad of rational and sentimental reasons. At a time when the whole food system feels somewhat precarious, I assume that a product labeled organic is more healthful and safer, more “wholesome,” though if I stop to think about it, I’m not exactly sure what that means. I also like the fact that by buying organic, I’m casting a vote for a more environmentally friendly kind of agriculture: “Better Food for a Better Planet,” in the slogan of Cascadian Farm, one of the older organic brands.