I once had a woman walk up to me in Aspen and ask if I knew a good place to go for dessert. I pointed her to a bakery down the street, but she shook her head. "It's probably just full of refined sugar and other unhealthy stuff." To this day, I remain uncertain what she was thinking of when she asked about dessert, and what sort of healthy, unsugary ingredients would go into it.
I think of that lament when I hear people complain that commercially available prepared foods are awful: so much fat, salt, sugar and preservatives. Since they are presumably hoping to eat something besides the raw vegetables in the produce section, what, exactly are they hoping for?
(Note: I'm not talking about the people who complain that the pre-prepared foods don't taste good, a complaint with which I often agree. I'm talking about the people who seem to want to be able to buy sandwich bread, peanut butter and so forth, but without all the…stuff…in it.)
Michael Hobbes explains the obvious in his discussion of Michael Moss's book, "Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Tricked Us": that stuff is in it because without it, your food will quickly go bad, and/or taste terrible.
There's a scene in Moss's book where he goes to a Cargill facility and they make him a slice of industrial-scale bread without any salt. The texture, the taste, the color, everything is wrong, Moss says. It tastes like a piece of tin foil.
This scene confused me. When I make bread at home, I use about half a teaspoon of salt for an entire loaf. If you cut the salt out of my homemade bread, yeah, it's bland and a bit puffier (Alton Brown teaches us that salt counteracts the effectiveness of yeast), but it's still bread, not some horrifying replicant.
But my bread, the one I spend the better part of a day kneading and proofing, is stale before I can eat about half of it. Wonder Bread, with 27 ingredients, half a teaspoon of sugar and 7 percent of your daily allowance of salt in every slice, lasts on the shelf for two weeks.
Processed food isn't bad for you because the products -- pasta sauce, macaroni and cheese, white bread -- are inherently sweet and salty. They are bad for you because they are inherently industrial. Supermarket supply chains are long, slow and and unforgiving. Which means everything you buy at one has to be made in massive batches, perfectly standardized and capable of sitting at room temperature in a glass jar or plastic bag for months on end. If you took that kind of abuse, you'd need chemical assistance too.
Hobbes blames capitalism, which has forced companies to sell us salt-sugar-and-fat-laden foods because if they don't, they'll lose market share. But a more accurate culprit would be "women who would like to do something other than spending the equivalent of a full modern workweek preparing food." That's right -- in the Victorian era, keeping the family fed took well north of 30 hours a week. Getting out of the kitchen meant that the industrial supply chain had to take over many of the tasks that women used to do by hand, from plucking chickens to baking bread.
These innovations are the reason that the average modern woman spends only four to five hours a week on food. If we were making everything from fresh, raw, unprocessed ingredients, our food would contain much less sugar and fat and salt, and it would contain many more hours of our lives. Clearly, most of us are not willing to make that trade-off.
I don't mean to say that the industrialization of our supply chain was caused by the women's movement -- 1950s housewives were big fans of packaged and processed food. Rather, the causation goes the other way: no pre-packaged foods, no women's liberation. We'd still be in the kitchen, making marinara from the fresh tomatoes we'd grown in our own gardens.
Of course, wealthier people can afford to buy prepared food without so many preservatives -- bakery bread that goes stale in a couple of days and fresh made salads at a local deli. But I expect most people would be surprised to find out just how much hidden salt and fat and sugar are in those artisanal products, which are rarely subject to labeling requirements. As a high-end chef once said to me, "The secret ingredient to every recipe is…fat." Besides, most people don't feel they can afford to spend $20 a week just on bread, that being what it would cost to procure a daily fresh loaf from my nearest bakery. You can similarly multiply the costs of other foods, if you want them absolutely fresh -- so fresh that they don't require preservation and flavor enhancement.
Most of us could, and should, eat more fresh produce. But we would still be reliant, most of the year, on well-preserved foods with lots of fat, salt and sugar, unless we were willing to settle for food with the flavor and texture of old wool. That's unfortunate. However, speaking as a woman who likes to cook -- but not 30 hours a week, every week -- the trade-off seems to be worth it.
To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at email@example.com