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Junk Food – Where do we go from here?

Posted by tinako on November 19, 2011

I read Mark Bittman’s article, “Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?“, several months ago.  It’s time to blog.

It starts with a comparison of costs and nutrition of three different meals: McDonald’s burgers, fries, and Coke, $27.89; chicken, potatoes, salad (which seemed to be just lettuce with oil dressing), and milk, $13.78; Canned pinto beans, bacon, rice, and milk, $9.26.  There was a brief mention that you could omit the bacon from the last meal and use dry beans, but that idea didn’t get its own cost or nutrition breakdown.  It’s unfortunate that in a discussion of cheap, healthy eating, the cheapest, healthiest meal mentioned didn’t get it’s full shot.

Nutritionally, of course, anything beats McDonald’s.  The chicken had almost three times as much protein (not that most people need more protein), and a lot fewer carbs, probably because of tossing the soda.  The rice, bacon, and beans had a third fewer calories, less than half the fat, a third fewer carbs, and still more protein than McD’s.

I liked Bittman’s point that these meals were calculated with regular supermarket fare, not necessarily the healthiest possible choice anyone could think of (organic brown rice, sweet potatoes, organic heirloom carrots shredded in the salad), because “the alternative to fast food is not necessarily organic food, any more than the alternative to soda is Bordeaux….The alternative to soda is water, and the alternative to junk food is not grass-fed beef and greens from a trendy farmers’ market, but anything other than junk food.”

Bittman goes on to talk about evidence of addiction to processed food.  I especially liked his term that companies created a “food carnival, and that’s where we live.”  It made me think how I used to go to a fair and think, “Well, as a treat I’m going to have one really awful thing,” and away I’d happily go with my enormous funnel cake or whatever.  But this stuff is everywhere now, in drug stores, office supply stores, school hallways – where can you go that you can’t buy cheap, attractive calories?  Every day is treat day now, every moment an opportunity to splurge.

A few years ago I poked fun at a book review for The Art of Choosing, when the reviewer suggested that perhaps people become vegan to reduce the overwhelming food choices they face.  I laughed at the idea that limiting my choices when I’m out was a benefit of being vegan.  I have been meaning to revisit that post, because while it certainly was not the reason I became vegan, I find I am actually grateful that most of the food carnival is closed to me due to deeply held values.  No amount of advertising or colorful packaging could induce me to eat that McDonald’s meal.  I drive by Dunkin Donuts without even a wistful glance.  Candy bar display?  Pah!  Foods that had a hold over me, habits I seemed unable to break, all gone.  I walk easily, whistling, through this food carnival.

Bittman finishes his article with the challenge that we must begin to tear down the carnival, a difficult task with companies shouting “Nanny State” any time someone tries to undo the manipulative environment they have so carefully assembled.  But we did it with tobacco, and we can do it with food.  Bittman says we will need both cultural and political change, and sums them up:

The cultural lies in celebrating real food; raising our children in homes that don’t program them for fast-produced, eaten-on-the-run, high-calorie, low-nutrition junk; giving them the gift of appreciating the pleasures of nourishing one another and enjoying that nourishment together.

Political action would mean agitating to limit the marketing of junk; forcing its makers to pay the true costs of production; recognizing that advertising for fast food is not the exercise of free speech but behavior manipulation of addictive substances; and making certain that real food is affordable and available to everyone. The political challenge is the more difficult one, but it cannot be ignored.

For the first time in 200 years, our children are expected to live shorter lives than their parents due largely to the food carnival we call the United States.  We need, desperately, to get past the dismissive nanny state argument so we can consider legislation on its own merits, and decide what kind of food culture, and ultimately, health, we want to pass to our children.

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4 Responses to “Junk Food – Where do we go from here?”

  1. Excellent points made. Vegan menu options benefit compassion, environment, and physical health relative to their omnivore counterparts, but I never considered a potential mental health benefit (Art of Choosing). In our modern Western world we are bombarded with information and choices to make; having fewer choices to make may be a relief to some people. I would prefer greater transparency in our food system though, and that processed food labels and menus come with far more information – allowing consumers to make informed choices. Exposure to such information would inevitably lead more people to enjoy the type of diet shared by you and me – virtually no processed foods – which may be why food industry lobbyists work so hard to ensure that processed food and menu labeling is as vague, misleading, and undemanding as possible.

    • tinako said

      I agree. I think more labeling would be a great step to take in helping people make healthier choices. No one is prying the fries out of anyone’s hand when they mark the calories on the menu. When trans-fat began to be labeled, products the food manufacturers said couldn’t be made without it was suddenly made without it, because consumers weren’t going to buy them otherwise. Problem solved. There are ways the Nutrition Facts labels could be improved so they are more helpful. People want easier-to-use information they can trust (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/6397187.stm).

  2. “Foods that had a hold over me, habits I seemed unable to break, all gone. I walk easily, whistling, through this food carnival.”

    Love it!

    So many times people look at me pityingly, or like I’m insane, when they find out that I’ve renounced animal products – they think of all the things I can NO LONGER EAT and imagine I’m deprived. In fact I’ve learned to cook and use spices, and I’ve never loved food more; but I love how you point out that we also help ourselves avoid the cheap, terrible processed treats that are packaged and offered as if their edibility is a virtue.

    • tinako said

      I was thinking about this issue this morning. I never noticed before, but there was a 5′ wide display of candy under the checkout counter at FedEx-Kinkos.

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