It's hard to think of anything more essential to human survival than eating. And yet that very primal act of gobbling sustenance has, of late, become one of the most genuinely perplexing things we people do.
Notice the sudden flood of books and movies covering the evils of industrialized food? Since Taste Test is, after all, a look at "technology's transformation of food," we felt we'd be remiss in skipping this particularly stormy subject. We turned to Georgina Gustin, food reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for answers. Here's what she has to say:
Eating is no longer just eating. Beyond tooth decay or bad gas, food has consequences. For our health, for the environment, for the giant, interconnected economy that feeds us, for poor farmers in far away countries, for rich farmers in the US, for the politicians we elect.
Hundreds of years ago, this was not the case. We ate whatever we could grow or get our hands on. (We were less towering, but so svelte!) Then we started moving to cities, away from the patches of dirt that sustained us, and things started getting complicated. Today, more than two centuries into the modernization of food, the situation is yet more baffling. I spend every day writing about food, and even so, a walk through the grocery store can be taxing. (Maybe not as exhausting as spearing a wild boar for lunch. But still.)
Here's a very, very abridged and over-simplified version of what happened:
A guy in France developed canning for Napoleon's troops. Some years later his compatriote, Louis Pasteur, figured out that heating beverages killed nasty bacteria. A few decades after that, Clarence Frank Birdseye worked out a viable way to freeze food without ruining it.
These developments (and others) meant that food could travel and last longer without making people sick. It also meant food companies could make money. At the same time, people began leaving farms. Efficiencies in food production, transportation and agriculture, eventually helped along by government subsidies, meant companies could produce more food more cheaply and send it farther and farther afield. All of which led to a globalized, mechanized, commoditized system that delivers fresh strawberries to Alaska in January and produces highly processed food with long lists of ingredients, sourced from literally hundreds of places.
Today the average American grocery store has 50,000 products, leaving the average shopper with a staggering amount of hype and packaging to choose from—and very little idea about the contents therein. In fact, the grocery store now is largely about disguise. Ever see the "Smart Choices" label on the front of food packages in the grocery store? It was devised in part by food manufacturers to guide consumers to healthier choices. Among them: Fruit Loops.
A child eating a stegosaurus-shaped chicken nugget probably has no sense whatsoever that the breaded matter in front of him came from a bird (a bird that may have been pumped full of drugs, so fattened it can't walk without breaking its own legs). The fish labeled "Product of China" may, in fact, have come from somewhere else and only been processed in China. Genetically modified products make their way into an estimated 60 percent of the food in our grocery stores, but the government does not require labels announcing this.
In other words, thanks to technology, we have no idea what we're eating most of the time and that, possibly, is why we're gorging ourselves into obesity and sickness. We're infinitely detached from what sustains us, from the farmers, fishermen, canners and cowhands who work in the service of a bunch of multinational corporations that answer to shareholders, rather than public health. That very vital thing that keeps us alive has become an abstraction.
So where have all these advancements in food gotten us? Depends on who you ask.
Fewer farmers are doing the backbreaking work of growing things or coping with the cruel vagaries of weather. Today about 2% of Americans work on farms. At the turn of the last century, that figure was 40%. These days Americans spend less than 10% of their disposable income on food, which is less than most countries in the world. The industry employs millions of people. Then there's genetic engineering, which, its developers say, holds the promise of growing more food with less fertilizer and less water on less land. This will be very handy, they point out, when the world's population reaches the estimated 9 billion in 2050 and we run out of farmland.
These are huge accomplishments. We Americans can feed ourselves, many times over. We're not scratching around for calories.
But more Americans—concerned for their health, the environment, the welfare of farmers or all three—now saying they want to take food back into their own hands. They say they want unprocessed, "real" food grown on a farm, preferably close to where they live so as not to rack up the "food miles" (though even this, the distance food travels from farm to consumer, may or may not define a food's environmental impact depending on whose study you read). They're eschewing the mystery of pre-packaged foods at the supermarket for the stuff they get at the farmers' market or their own backyard gardens.
This "locavore" movement is tiny relative to the multi-billion dollar food industry, but its marketing appeal has become so powerful that it's grabbed the industry's attention nonetheless. It's the new "going green." Earlier this year, Frito-Lay launched a "Lay's Local" marketing campaign highlighting the local farmers who grow potatoes for their chips. Go to any grocery store and you're likely to find signs that boast of a product's proximity.
The idea that regions can and should provide their own food—that the country should overhaul its food superstructure into regionally based systems—has earned a lot of followers recently (not to mention an iPhone app). But some thinkers call this regressive, pointing out:
A. It would be tough to feed all of us this way.
B. It's more efficient and less environmentally taxing to grow what's native, or most easily produced, in one area, and trade with other areas for the rest.
C. An all-local diet in, say, Bismarck, North Dakota would be pretty grim come winter, in spite of the movement towards old-timey skills like canning and pickling to preserve the seasonal harvest. Yaaay sauerkraut!
So What's An Eater to Do?
It's pretty tough for the average American to eat a virtuous, healthy diet—and it's expensive. Most of us don't have the time, skills or space to grow our own food, and we can't all shop at farmers' markets either. The influential omnivore Michael Pollan issued some simple guidance in his most recent book: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Pollan also suggests eating things with no more than five ingredients on the label, or shopping the perimeter of the grocery store, where the fresh goods and produce sit, rather than the center, where all the processed and frozen stuff is.
But what would happen if everyone bought locally? If they veered away from the frozen section? Or anything containing high fructose corn syrup, which is in nearly everything we eat?
Would we see food giants implode and the wholesale remaking of the American, and global, food economies? The collapse of modern agriculture and a return to a pastoral past that may not have been as idyllic as we like to think? Would millions lose jobs? Would we all lose weight?
We don't know.
In the meantime, expect to be confused. Expect new and conflicting advice on healthful eating. Expect movies and books to scare the hell out of you, and food corporations to maintain profitable illusions. Read labels cautiously. Be mindful with each bite. And if something smells bad, don't eat it.
• Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, by James E. McWilliams
• Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver
• Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, by Marion Nestle
• The End of Food, by Paul Roberts
• Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan
• In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, by Michael Pollan
• Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, by Eric Schlosser
• The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
Georgina Gustin writes about all things serious and food-related for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and occasionally writes not-as-serious things about food, travel and design for several national magazines. She is also the editor of Buttered Lark, a soon-to-be-launched web magazine devoted to food and place. This is her first Gizmodo contribution. She likes sandwiches.
Taste Test is our weeklong tribute to the leaps that occur when technology meets cuisine, spanning everything from the historic breakthroughs that made food tastier and safer to the Earl-Grey-friendly replicators we impatiently await in the future.