By Phyllis K. Kennemer
Why do we eat what we eat? This simple question is quite complex. The most obvious answer would be, “We eat what tastes good.” However, this is not as straightforward as one might expect because there is no universal agreement about what tastes good.
Sense of taste in developed in the cultural traditions of our childhood. The choices available during that stage of life are generally based in ethnic and family traditions. As mature, we may retain some preferences for foods we ate as children, but we also begin to develop our own individual tastes.
Choosing Healthy Foods
These food preferences are based in both conscious and unconscious decisions. We might choose to experiment with different cultural cuisines. We may eat an unfamiliar food to be polite in a social setting, or we might train ourselves to eat something we feel would be “good for us” — thus developing an acquired taste.
Most people like the taste of foods that contain some salt, sugar, or fat. Yet, many realize that overindulging in these foods may cause health problems. So they make conscious decisions to limit these types of choices. Reading labels for nutritional value can supersede considerations of taste in some cases.
Taste is not the only consideration in food selection. Some decisions are made consciously, but others may be habitual or unconscious. Many researchers and authors in the field believe that the cost of food is one of the major determining factors in eating choices.
Some researchers have come to the conclusion that price drives taste. They maintain that Americans tend to choose what is cheap and, therefore, develop a taste for cheap food. This tendency is reinforced by the universal desire to find “a good deal”. People want more for less. They are attracted to value meals, two for-one deals, and free refills on sodas. They may choose “all you can eat” restaurants where they refill their plates many times to “get their money’s worth.” This same principle of looking for a bargain or paying less for food carries over into the process of buying groceries for meals at home.
How much does the price of the food enter into our decisions about what to eat? Are the decisions we make about food choices conscious or unconscious? Could we make better decisions if we raised our awareness levels concerning how foodstuff is produced and priced?
What Are We Paying for Our Food?
Another, perhaps more significant question, is “Why are food prices so low in the United States?” It is estimated that people in the U.S. spend about 6% of our disposable income on food. People in most other countries spend at least twice that amount and some spend much more.
Our low prices can be attributed to a variety of causes. Our government subsidizes industrial food production. Most of our food is produced in large mega agriculture facilities and increasing amounts of foodstuff is imported from other countries. Although these components keep prices down, some people believe they create larger problems.
Crops are grown in huge fields using the latest technologies available. Chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides are used to help the produce grow faster and larger and to eliminate pests that could reduce the yield. There are valid concerns about the effect of these chemicals on our bodies when we eat the food and the consequences of these chemicals seeping into ground water.
For example, a study in the journal Environmental Sciences Europereveals that Americans have applied 1.8 million tons of glyphosate (aka RoundUp) since its introduction in 1974, particularly on genetically modified crops (http://www.newsweek.com/glyphosate-now-most-usedagricultural-chemical-ever-422419 ). This is a concern because the World Health Organization has stated that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen. Concern has also been expressed that some corporations do not rotate crops often enough, resulting in loss of topsoil in those areas. Not such a great deal for our bodies or the planet.
Cattle and pigs are raised in huge feedlots. The animals eat genetically engineered corn and soy, are fattened on growth hormones and given a variety of antibiotics. In fact, over 70% of antibiotics used in the US are used by factory farms and this over usage is leading to the development of drug resistant bacteria in humans. Each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections. (https://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/). Again, that cheap meat is not looking like such a great deal.
The Connection Between Food Production and Cost
Food production in the U.S. is highly regulated and is influenced by the purchasing power of large corporations. Fast food franchises set specifications for their hamburgers concerning size, shape, taste, fat content, texture and cost. These same principles apply to all the food served, including bread, vegetables (potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce), and condiments.
This demand for uniformity and low prices extends far beyond the fast food industry. Major discount stores and large supermarket chains also set specifications and price expectations for products sold through their venues. The commercial motivation for longer shelf life has eliminated fruit and vegetable varieties that are less hardy. This practice has sometimes resulted in produce that is less nutritious and less tasty.
Policies governing the importation and exportation of food are complicated and sometimes create unanticipated results. A lot of the garlic consumed in California is imported from China, while much of the garlic grown in California is exported to Europe. In another strange example, shrimp served in many restaurants in seacoast cities in the United States has been imported from Thailand.
It is almost impossible for the average person to be informed about all of the factors involved in the pricing and the quality of foods that we consume. However, it is safe to say that the price of industrially produced food is artificially low because of government subsidies and a burden is placed on communities where factory farms are located. These farms are not responsible for the pollution they create from excessive amounts of manure, the stench that destroys the quality of life in surrounding communities, the cruel manner in which animals are confined and killed, or the stressful working conditions where production can never be fast enough. These corporations rake in the profits and leave suffering in their wake.
As concerned citizens, we can choose to support a food system that works for our bodies, communities, and planet and reject the kind that simply inflates corporate profits. We can choose to become more consciously aware of the impact of foods we consume. Most importantly, we can understand the real cost of real food and it is not $1 for a dozen eggs or for a hamburger. There is a steep price to be paid for such a “good deal”.
Resources for More Information
• Biltekoff, Charlotte. Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food & Health
• Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal
• Shell, Ellen Ruppel. Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture
• Weber, Karl, editor. Food, Inc.: How Industrial Food Is Making Us Sicker, Fatter and Poorer — And What You Can Do about It
• Sierra Club. The True Cost of Food: www.truecostoffood.org