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Why is it so difficult to eat real food in the 21st century?

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Once the weird and alien alternative, industrialized food is now the norm

Photo by Vlad Savov

My great-grandmother lived to be over 100 years old. Never leaving her rural Bulgarian surroundings, she might have been one of the last people on the planet who wouldn’t be able to tell you who Ronald McDonald was. Hers was a diet of simple, natural foods: meat that wasn’t pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics, vegetables that weren’t grown in a haze of insecticide, and fruit that didn’t last for weeks without spoiling. By the sheer accident of her not-yet-civilized environment, she was eating better than the vast majority of us civilized city folks. Now I’m trying to do the same and return to a diet of real food, free of deleterious additives or deceptive imitations, but it’s hard. It’s very hard.

Who decided that Valentine’s Day and Easter eggs should be all about chocolate?

The power of marketing over diets in the developed world is overwhelming. Every cultural trigger for eating has now been geared toward "indulging" in junk food: hot dogs are a tradition of attending baseball games, popcorn is a cinema institution, and birthdays wouldn’t be birthdays without cake. Halloween fetishizes the collection of candy and conflates it with the fun of being social, forever imprinting on the minds of children the idea that sugary confectionery and a community spirit go hand in hand. The actually healthy pumpkin is converted into a perverse decorative effigy. For myself, I can say that it took me an embarrassingly long time to shake off the belief that McDonald’s is actually a restaurant and its food is of superior quality to the local Bulgarian fare.

With such a mindset broadly established in the western world, demand for junk food starts to overwhelm (and even diminish) the supply of healthier choices. I don’t wish to deny anyone their right to a burger with fries and a beer at a sports game, but why must I bring a packed lunch if I want a fresh and nutritious meal without a side of suicide? Trying to eat as well as my octogenarian grandparents still do back at home is socially debilitating for me in the big city: no pizza place, no burger joint, no cinema, and certainly no airline has ever been able to fully accommodate what shouldn’t be considered unreasonable demands. It’s really not complicated: I don’t want margarine, sprayable cheese, or whatever the hell goes into making a Twinkie. Peanut butter shouldn’t have more than one ingredient.

Peanut butter shouldn’t have more than one ingredient

Many restaurants and supermarkets are paying lip service to the notion of healthy eating and providing organic produce, but more often than not that’s just a sleight of hand and crafty repackaging. There are countless examples like Kraft’s guacamole (which is made with no actual avocado) that can catch out those looking to make healthy choices with their diet.

While I think the world can live happily (and more healthily) even in the absence of Oreos and Twinkies, I understand the pragmatic reasons for the rise of such highly processed, industrialized foods. They last longer, cost less, and can be churned out in vast factories, making their production both scalable and profitable. So long as they don’t kill you in some immediate or obvious way, good marketing can keep them going not merely as alternatives to healthy eating, but as somehow preferable choices. The very mention of brands like Krispy Kreme, M&M’s, Pringles, and Doritos starts your mouth salivating in a way that cabbage and kale could never hope to match. I know this because I’ve spent most of my life desperately in love with such decidedly junky edible products, and it’s only been over the past few years that I’ve managed to eliminate them from my diet and replace them with stuff that actually bears a passing resemblance to something growing on our planet.

My colleague Dan Seifert, unfortunately still under the intoxicating influence of foods high in sugar and marketers low on scruples, recently performed a thoroughgoing review of the best Oreo you can buy. He probably doesn’t care about the full list of ingredients in Oreos and their effects, and I’m not paternalistic enough to insist that he does. People like Dan should be free to get their chocolatey fix, but at the same time, people like me should also be able to get their fill of healthful, nutritious food.

Instead, those who wish to eat real food as a matter of course are made to feel like snobs and, given the centrality of food to social interactions, oftentimes outcasts among their own kin. I don't see myself as any more elitist than the average person asking his doctor for the best possible medicine. You wouldn't accept a pharmaceutical placebo in the place of the real thing, why would you tolerate a nutritional one?