Are We Addicted to Food?

There was a New York Times magazine article last week that gave a fascinating behind the scenes look into the junk/ processed food industry. The amount of money spent on perfecting food that is horrible for us is astronomical. On the research and development end, there is so much thought (and money) that goes into every ingredient, every hint of flavor, how everything feels in your mouth, and every ounce of force required to bite a chip. Just imagine if all that money was put to a culinary cause that could benefit us rather than harm us. Even financially that could make sense- if your customers live longer they buy your product for longer, but in reality, it is in the best interest of these large corporations to steer customers as far from moderation as possible. In that article it even mentioned that CocaCola doesn’t target people who may have a coke on occasion, its primary audience is the “heavy user” who drinks three cokes a day!

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This article also likened marketing junk food to kids (like this Lunchables commercial) to marketing tobacco to kids: they are both unhealthy substances that young brains are not developed enough to make their own decisions about. That Lunchables commercial is especially disturbing because it encourages kids to use food as a way to escape from their parents’ rules and expectations- it uses junk food as a method of rebellion and independence. Personally, I think it is dangerous to use food as a method for anything other than fueling your body.

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As I am very interested in marketing, all of this really piqued my interest. Is there no limit to how much junk food these “heavy users” (heavy being the key word here) will buy? As more research comes in, apparently not. There is more and more evidence surfacing about the addictive qualities of junk food. The amount of salt and sugar overwhelm our senses and cause us to crave more, much like a drug. Also much like a drug, we continue to buy it and eat it when we know it is bad for us. This article from Prevention gives great research, testimonials, and even advice for breaking a food addiction. I had never really heard of the concept of food addiction before, but that article makes good sense. It explains how our brains are not equipped to handle the incredible amounts of sugar and salt that food industries have poured into our food in the past few decades. The internal response is very similar to that of a drug: it is soothing and pleasurable. Perhaps the most telling evidence is that if one were to ask drug users and food addicts similar questions about their habits such as “do you know it is bad for you and consume it anyway?” the answers are strikingly similar.

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Just like so many other issues in our society I just keep thinking this has to be a bubble like the housing/ mortgage bubble. It just has to burst at some point. How can we keep eating this junk to excess? How can we keep letting this food control us: control our brains? When will enough be enough? Sadly, I think the answer is when all this junk food stops bringing in such a profit.

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America’s “Healthiest” Grocery Store

Apparently, when you’re America’s Healthiest Grocery store you need to alert the world on your brown paper bags. Image

The Pollan article I discussed last week stressed that if a food is making bold health claims on the packaging, chances are there are healthier things to eat. I have a feeling that this remains true with grocery stores as well, especially considering that statement is marked as a registered trademark meaning that it is not a fact. It is just a marketing ploy, a tagline. 

The marketing doesn’t stop there. All sides of this bag are covered with bold claims and justification for all the money the consumer just spent on overpriced groceries. Image

What better justification could there be than “improving lives with every purchase”? (Again another registered trademark and not an actual fact) Whole Foods is all about convincing the consumer they made the right choice including emphasizing the vitamins in bell peppers, for example, as well as their ability to “power [you] up”. If the health values of the food itself isn’t enough, they also stress the social benefits to shopping at Whole Foods aka “better wages and working conditions, environmental responsibility and community development”.

On the other side, Whole Foods goes a step farther. After justifying your previous action of purchasing groceries at Whole Foods, they suggest a few small lifestyle changes including trying new, exotic vegetables, adding enhancers to your water (plain water is just SO pedestrian these days), and using the butchers as meat consultants.

ImageAdditionally, this side makes the bold, mathematical claim that “healthy=convenient” aka health and convenience are interchangeable, especially at Whole Foods. This is a promotion for their prepared foods which are inherently more processed than the raw ingredients, and thus probably less healthy.

The final side proves once and for all that “healthy” is the most important message Whole Foods is trying to convey to their consumers with the statements “healthy tastes good” and “health starts here”.

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Whole Foods is trying to view this “health” holistically by indicating that in addition to their “health” food, they also promote health socially and environmentally.

In this day and age, what does health really mean? Is it medical, social, environmental? Who constructs “health” and what it means to be “healthy”? Is there any room for variability? Is healthy just a marketing ploy or something more?

In this case, it seems to be a marketing ploy especially because registered trademark symbols cover the bag. I’ll stick with Pollan’s idea. I’ll buy my red peppers from wherever I like because they will still have vitamin C and “power [me] up” but I don’t need to announce this to the world via my shopping bag.

Do we choose to eat nutrients or food?

For this week’s post I read this fascinating article in the New York Times by Michael Pollan entitled “Unhappy Meals”.

Pollan discusses the rise of the ideology “nutritionism” in which scientists dissect foods down to their nutrient components and share this information with consumers who then use this information to make decisions about what they are going to eat. He explains that we have fallen prey to this idea that it is the nutrients that matter and not the food. That is how boxes of frosted flakes fly off the shelves and parents justify it because they have “calcium”. In reality, spinach is a much better source of calcium, but because it doesn’t have a label that specifically tells consumers that, they are often apt to go with the frosted flakes or [insert any processed food here].

I have never read anything by Pollan before, but I think this idea is absolutely revolutionary as well as logical- a wonderful, rare combination. When we talk about health or a balanced diet we usually speak in terms of nutrients or categories rather than whole foods. We take supplement after supplement to add to our daily intake of vitamins and minerals. Choosing foods has come down to a check list for many. Have I gotten my vitamin C in today? No, better have some orange  juice- hey look that will give me vitamin D and calcium also! Don’t have to gulp down that glass of milk later-phewf!

I particularly liked the section when he discussed eating in other cultures and the baffling anomaly that is the French diet: fats, alcohol, cheese, bread, and yet they’re all so beautiful!

When I spent a semester in Spain, I could not believe what everyone was eating: French fries at LITERALLY every meal, ham, sausage, eggs, potatoes, and no vegetables except the occasional white asparagus, all paired with glass after glass of wine. I went weeks without eating anything green. Worst of all, when I tried to order a salad I was horrified to discover salad translated to a head of iceberg lettuce covered in canned tuna swimming in mayo. I felt as though my arteries were clogging up, my skin was breaking out, and I could not figure out why Spain was not the most obese country in the world. However, much to my amazement, my clothes weren’t fitting that much tighter.

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For example, this was a sandwich I attempted to eat in Spain- it had 7 different kinds of meat between some pieces of bread, grilled covered in cheese and topped with an egg and gravy surrounded by french fries. It is a local classic: the equivalent to a burger and a heart attack.

It’s a completely different lifestyle over there. They spend hours strolling around, talking to each other: enjoying life. One thing that really stuck out to me was that no one ever ate while walking. People sat on the side of the street, in the middle of the plaza, on a bench, wherever, to enjoy their food and never alone. Eating and food was part of a lifestyle that is so opposite from ours. The Spaniards are not checking off their vitamins and minerals everyday, but they are active and social and make food and eating synonymous with pleasure and enjoyment. They don’t over indulge, they don’t stuff themselves, they don’t take 800 supplements a day, and they certainly don’t sweat it if they eat potatoes 3 times in a day.

As Pollan pointed out, calcium, saturated fat, and riboflavin are not food. You can’t see them, touch them, smell them, or taste them, but we make such a point to eat them everyday. So much so that we often don’t care what form they come it: plastic caplet casing, sugar-coated wheat flake, packaged breakfast bar, or whole fruits and vegetables.

Now I’m not advocating that we all eat like the Spanish- I can tell you from experience there is definitely such a thing as too many French fries- but we can take a page from their book. We can sit down and enjoy the foods we eat instead of the nutrients that make them up.

The Death of the Dinner Party: Too Many Diets

On the first day of class, when we were told to keep a blog, I knew immediately what I wanted my first post to be. There was a New York Times Complaint Box article a few years ago about the rise of new food activism and what that means for the modern dinner party. The author’s complaint was that with so many people trying a new restrictive diet, discovering some sort of new intolerance to some inconveniently common ingredient, and limiting the variety of foods they will eat, it is becoming very difficult to plan a dinner party.  Keep in mind this is a complaint box article meaning that it is meant to be received in a light-hearted manner.

Here is a link to the article: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/20/complaint-box-picky-eaters/

The frenzy of comments after is even more interesting than the article itself. Days later, there was a follow-up post stating that that complaint box article received a record number of comments. I read through the first 350 (they were incredibly amusing) to put together this picture of what people were saying.

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Image from http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/20/complaint-box-picky-eaters/

In typical, self-important online commenter style, many users detailed their own dietary limits: vegetarian with exceptions, vegan, raw foods vegan, etc. These commenters were generally agreeable stating that they usually give the host plenty of notice, or offer to be uninvited, or even offer to provide a side dish or two. Others went into great depth about various medical conditions dictating their limitations and the complications (I’ll spare you the details). These commenters were generally very hostile and scolded the author for her discriminatory behavior.

Some of the readers were quite passionate. They used inflamed language, threatened each other, and were often downright outrageous. Here are a few examples:

“MEAT IS MURDER/DAIRY IS DYSFUNCTIONAL/HONEY IS SLAVERY”

“Kill the vegans!”

“To those who say kill the vegans (I am not vegan): I would rather kill the greedy carnivores who rape the oceans and lands just to tickle their delicate taste buds.”

Others felt very strongly that the author should not deal with all these requests. Several readers commented things like: “avoid these people” and “whatever you do, stop being a slave to these people”. Notice the incredibly isolating language of “these people”. The commenters do not want to be associated with “these people” they are creating an otherness, a minority.

Some comments were just downright snarky:

“I have a medically validated condition that forbids me from having meals not cooked personally by Daniel Boulud and having wine less than 100 years old. My religion also forbids me from paying for such meals. And of course my ethnic background dictates that YOU ALL have to bend over backwards for me.
God Bless America!”

Yikes!

In our class, we have acknowledged how food is emblematic of so many things making it very interesting to study. It reflects a person’s upbringing, values, culture, family, political views, morals, discipline, and just about any other quality. Some readers proved to be acutely aware of just how important food is to a person. One commenter described the picky eating habits of children as “defin[ing] their individuality”.  Another commenter said, “Food is supposed to be an adventure. It opens the mind and stimulates the senses. The tastes themselves help stimulate different parts of the brain and make for greater enlightenment.” Some of these people are really recognizing that the food you eat is very telling of who you are and the mentality you have.

I found this quote to be particularly interesting: “[vegans] need to get off their high horses once in a while and indulge us weaker eating out of your comfort zone is a temporary event; being rudely self-important and self-consumed will taint and haunt your ability to be a loving human for your entire life.”

This user is admitting they feel less moral for being a meat eater. They feel pressure to be “holier” and more mindful of what they eat. These feelings of guilt are coming out as anger and blame. This reader is referring to personal diet and lifestyle choices as rude and describing the people electing these diets as self-consumed and unable to be a loving person. It is obvious that this is just passionate language and logically diet choices have nothing to do with the capacity to love, but that is a quite audacious claim to make. Proof that people not only have strong feelings about what they eat personally, but also about what other people are eating.

This discussion caused commenters to even evoke their own, invented vocabulary terms to describe their feelings and experiences. One reader invented the term “orthorexia” to describe a sister-in-law who refuses to eat anything that not organic, local, fair-trade, green, etc. Another reader used the term “culinary bullying” to refer to other commenters who were suggesting it is okay not to accommodate everyone’s preferences when you are the host. She said it was “culinary bullying” to deliberately cook something you know someone in your party will not eat and expect them to try it.

Other readers make sweeping declarations based on the article and comments. One reader said, “stupid, pointless trivialities like this are ruining this country”. Another said, “How can people possibly create a peaceful world if they can’t even eat a meal together.” I happen to agree with that last one. We all need to be able to share a meal, share stories, share memories. It doesn’t matter to me what that meal consists of.

Finally one sage commenter noted with concise brilliance, “risotto”. Think about it: it really would address most of those concerns.  Risotto for the win!