Saturday, February 21, 2009

Why we don't stand a chance (a food post)

I thought I'd break up the depressing economic/political commentary with a random moment of insight (or madness) about food. I ventured to the kitchen for a snack recently and, lo and behold, there was a box of Wheat Thins on the counter. Despite knowing to avoid packaged food and yearning for some delicious Indian food (dahl and chaval (lentil soup and rice)), I couldn't help myself, and snagged a couple while checking out the box.

A few things popped out. The marketing on the package screamed "HEALTHY" - they were trying to do everything they could to convince the consumer that this product did the body good. The Wheat Thins bragged about having "low fat" and was covered in little wheat symbols and such. Of course, quick turn to the nutrition facts showed that, despite it's relatively low fat, it had huge amounts of sodium (11% of your daily value in one serving).

As a side note, to channel a little Michael Pollan, that's the secret of packaged food - it hits you with abnormally high concentrations of fats, sodium, and/or sugar (those far, far higher than any food found in nature). That's it. Nearly every single packaged food is basically a carrier for one or more of those macronutrients. It doesn't matter how "healthy" the product says it is, or whatever cool marketing it has on it. Just fat, sugar, and/or sodium (or maybe one of those cancer-causing fake sugars).

But it just tastes good. Or, rather, the instant it hits your tongue, the chemicals that go surging through your brain feel awesome for a split second. Because in reality, it doesn't taste good at all - go try and taste whatever packaged food is lying in your kitchen. Try to savor the thing the entire time it's in your mouth. It's impossible - at some point, the "food" becomes a sort of cardboard-textured mess. Compare this to fruit or veggies, or any home-cooked meal - stuff that has flavor, texture, and true taste. There really is no comparison - seriously, try the experiment.

And this is why we don't stand a chance. I know this (and I've probably pissed off friends and family by belaboring the point since reading Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma last summer), and I still couldn't help myself.

The companies that make our food have intimate knowledge of our evolutionary response system, and leverage it to make food that they know will release a flood of "reward" chemicals in our brain and keep us coming back for more. To top it off, their food can brag about things like "low fat," "low sugar," "antioxidants," and "omega 3 fatty acids" while the spinach (very low fat), banana (very low, and natural, sugar), pomegranate (full of antioxidants), and avocado (deliciously filled with omega 3s) must remain silent, unable to make a case for being purchased.

And they wonder why we're the most unhealthy nation on the planet...

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