I am an avid ingredient-list reader, but the nutritional information on the sides of the packages get only a passing glace. But did you know that soon restaurants and stores will begin putting calorie counts on the food items on the menu? Some of you may have seen this at certain places already. But what is the point? If you want that espresso brownie, is the calorie count really going to make much difference? Are you really going to say to yourself, Self, you’ve already had you daily quota of calories from fat… you probably should not eat that brownie. No, most of us do not have that conversation, we just buy the brownie, calories be damned. But, the bigger issue here, as stated in the highlighted GOOD article, is that it puts the responsibility of those empty calories on the consumer.
I am of two minds on this subject: One, we should all be conscious consumers of what and how we eat. We should know the ingredients, understand the general nutritional components, and know where our average daily calorie intake should be to maintain a healthy weight and manage any health concerns we might have (diabetes, etc.). BUT! It is absolutely the responsibility of the food companies to provide quality foods to the consumer, and this is where most companies completely FAIL. Ingredients are low quality, the food lacks in nutritional value, and quite often it is simply unhealthy. But why do companies do this? Because it’s cheaper to fill the food with a low quality trio of taste- fat, sugar, salt– than with real food ingredients. And most often it is the worst types of fats (GMO oils and unhealthy animal fats), sugars (corn syrup, of course, but also GMO beet sugar or refined white sugar), and salt (almost always excessive amounts).
And why is it cheaper to sell this type of food rather than healthy, wholesome food? There are a myriad of reasons, primary among them is government subsidies to commodity farmers (primarily soy, corn, and wheat). Salon has published an excellent article discussing why healthy food seems so expensive- it’s based on an archaic system of government subsidies that keeps prices on commodity crops artificially low. David Sirota, the author writes, “agribusinesses [has] used billions of taxpayer dollars to subsidize those [corn, soybeans, wheat, etc.] that are the key ingredients of unhealthy food. Not surprisingly, the subsidies have manufactured a price inequality that helps junk food undersell nutritious-but-unsubsidized foodstuffs like fruits and vegetables.”
Essentially, this system allows the unhealthiest ingredients in our country to be used to make the cheapest foods– and in this economic climate it means that increasingly more people must turn to these empty calories to feed themselves and their families. But there are externalized costs associated with such foods, costs that are yet to be realized and are not counted in the ‘cheapness’ of the food; this explains why healthy, whole foods seems expensive in comparison. Externalized costs are the costs that don’t figure into the dollar amount of the food: this includes unhealthy weight gain from extra empty calories, persistent health concerns (such as diabetes or allergies), general lack of nutrition, but also includes the degradation of the landscape that must continually support these mono-cropped fields of corn and soy, the fuel costs to grow and transport all this grain, and the lives of the million feedlot animals that must be slaughtered to make beef this cheaply.
This is a decision we must face everyday for our families, and ourselves, and I know that these choices are hard. But I would encourage everyone to find a balance with their food choices that allows them to eat healthfully and yet still within their budgets. In my cooking classes I am often asked why vegetarian food is so expensive, and how to really afford good quality foods. I explain that home cooking using whole food ingredients is the healthiest way to cook, but this doesn’t mean buying packages, pre-made foods or junk food. It is important to shop around for healthy foods- use the bulk section, hit up the farmer’s market, watch the sales, maybe even grow some of your own foods- these will cut down food costs significantly. I totally understand that the amount one spends on one home-cooked meal can cost more than a meal at any fast food chain, but if one considers the savings in long-term health care issues and general well-being, the choice might be a bit easier to make.