Product profitability is as much a necessary consideration for food companies as how their products taste. [Page 195]
We all pretty much acknowledge that the majority of food in the modern American supermarket is crap. For every little display of broccoli or kale there are twenty linear feet of Hamburger Helper and its generic equivalents. If you ever want to be depressed about what people eat spend five minutes watching frozen pizzas fly out of the coolers on a given day. It’s amazing.
But why does American food seem to suck so much? It’s something that Melanie Warner, a freelance writer based in Colorado, tries to answer in Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal.
Ironically, our journey into the processed food wasteland began about the same time that people were beginning to fear what was in their food. Who can forget the image in The Jungle where a worker falls into a rendering vat and the processing continues. I bet that was on tasty canned hammed.
Science and industrialization came to the rescue. Basic ingredients like oat and wheat were steamed, rolled, flaked, puffed, baked, and generally abused until these processed foodstuffs were packaged and shipped off to America’s growing supermarkets. In an era when mass culture was taking off it was even better that such products could be advertised nationally on television sets.
Too bad all of that abuse rendered the foundation ingredients essentially nutrition free. So much so that nutrition had to be added back into products like bread. Make bread from whole grains and it is full of vitamins. Make it into Wonder Bread and you need to fortify the hell out of it.
The most telling fact about the reason why so much of our food is processed comes late in the book. In the same section where the quote at the top of this post is located, Warner writes:
Simple items like cheese, frozen vegetables, and chicken breasts have gross margins ranging from 15 percent to 30 percent. Breakfast cereal and snack chips, on the other hand, command margins up to 70 percent; soda and sports drinks offer a ridiculous 90 percent. That is why you see a constant barrage of ads for Gatorade and nothing for frozen blueberries. [Page 195]
The margins commanded by processed food are important because it not only drives the profitability of the manufacturers, but it dictates where investment dollars will flow. An investor, faced with an opportunity of similar potential success, will choose the project with a higher gross margin unless compelled by some other motivation outside of profit. By and large, our investment community is driven by the profit motive.
The post-World War II fascination with science and “progress” led us, as a collective whole, to believe that we could be separated from nature in so many ways. Our food could be made better by the intervention of man, but in the process something vital was lost and our food became little more than empty calories that expanded our mid-sections.
This fascination also led us, again as a collective whole, away from the kitchen for a variety of reasons. Some of the statistics Warner cites about the amount of time spent preparing meals prior to the processed food revolution are staggering:
Over the last seven decades, home cooking in America has plummeted. In 1927—the pre-TV dinner era—the average woman spent an unimaginable five to six hours a day preparing meals for her family. By the fifties, the food industry claimed that a housewife relying on convenience foods could fix her family’s meals in an hour and a half less, which is still an eternity by today’s standards. [Page 206-6]
There are a lot of reasons for our decreasing cooking time, primary among them is the migration of women into the workforce, but it is an even more insidious death spiral. As subsequent generations come of age, they will not have the institutional knowledge of how to cook and, therefore, cannot pass those skills down to further generations. Even if a person wants to cook there is a learning curve that must be mastered. At some point will we lose the common knowledge of how to operate in a kitchen? God, I hope not but I am not going to place a bet on the positive side of that ledger.
Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal. Is a short read—thankfully not over pedantic at just over 200 pages of text—that illuminates some of the drivers behind the development of our modern processed food complex.