Once upon a time Americans had a culture of food to guide us through the increasingly treacherous landscape of food choices: fat vs. carbs, organic vs. conventional, vegetarian vs. carnivorous. Culture in this case is just a fancy way of saying "your mom." She taught us what to eat, when to eat it, how much of it to eat, even the order in which to eat it. But Mom's influence over the dinner menu has proved no match for the $36 billion in food-marketing dollars ($10 billion directed to kids alone) designed to get us to eat more, eat all manner of dubious neofoods, and create entire new eating occasions, such as in the car. Some food culture.
I've spent the past five years exploring this daunting food landscape, following the industrial food chain from the Happy Meal back to the not-so-happy feedlots in Kansas and cornfields in Iowa where it begins and tracing the organic food chain back to the farms. My aim was simply to figure out what--as a nutritional, ethical, political and environmental matter--I should eat. Along the way, I've collected a few rules of thumb that may be useful in navigating what I call the Omnivore's Dilemma.
Don't eat anything your great-great-great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. Imagine how baffled your ancestors would be in a modern supermarket: the epoxy-like tubes of Go-Gurt, the preternaturally fresh Twinkies, the vaguely pharmaceutical Vitamin Water. Those aren't foods, quite; they're food products. History suggests you might want to wait a few decades or so before adding such novelties to your diet, the substitution of margarine for butter being the classic case in point. My mother used to predict "they" would eventually discover that butter was better for you. She was right: the trans-fatty margarine is killing us. Eat food, not food products.
Avoid foods containing high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). It's not just in cereals and soft drinks but also in ketchup and bologna, baked goods, soups and salad dressings. Though HFCS was not part of the human diet until 1975, each of us now consumes more than 40 lbs. a year, some 200 calories a day. Is HFCS any worse for you than sugar? Probably not, but by avoiding it you'll avoid thousands of empty calories and perhaps even more important, cut out highly processed foods--the ones that contain the most sugar, fat and salt. Besides, what chef uses high-fructose corn syrup? Not one. It's found only in the pantry of the food scientist, and that's not who you want cooking your meals.
Spend more, eat less. Americans are as addicted to cheap food as we are to cheap oil. We spend only 9.7% of our income on food, a smaller share than any other nation. Is it a coincidence we spend a larger percentage than any other on health care (16%)? All this "cheap food" is making us fat and sick. It's also bad for the health of the environment. The higher the quality of the food you eat, the more nutritious it is and the less of it you'll need to feel satisfied.