Thoughts On The Rise Of Junk Food

There’s a new movie out called The Founder, a biopic about Ray Croc, the man who bought a little hamburger joint from a couple of guys named McDonald and turned it into a global phenomenon, not to mention a vast fortune. It stars Michael Keaton, an actor I have long admired, so I’ll probably go see it. But when the ad for The Founder came on last night, I had a flash of insight. I thought I’d share it.

The Founder comes out as fast food in general, and McDonald’s in particular, are waning in popularity. The market is shifting to “fast casual” — Panera, Chipotle, and the like. Not only is fast casual food at least a bit more interesting than your standard burger and fries, it is generally perceived as more healthful. There has been a tremendous increase in concern about nutritional value and “cleanliness” of food, although the debate rages regarding what qualifies as healthful. (I, by way of example, would sooner eat a Quarter Pounder with cheese minus the bun than a Panera Sour Dough Bread Bowl filled with Cream of Chicken and Wild Rice soup.) Still, while the market for convenience food persists– see the rise of companies like Blue Apron delivering pre-prepped ingredients for home cooking, not to mention the prodigious array of frozen dinners in any grocery store’s freezer case — the trend is strong toward people paying more attention to the quality of the food they eat.

This leads to an interesting question: Why did they ever not pay attention? How did my parent’s generation, then mine, get sucked into sacks of burgers, buckets of fried chicken, frozen dinners, three-times-a-week pizza delivery, and the like, to the point where the health of the nation has been seriously compromised?

When I was a kid in the 1960s, such things were a novelty and a treat. Mom took us to McDonald’s a few times a year. Since they had yet to add dining rooms, we ate sitting on the tailgate of her station wagon — which, of course, limited such meals to good weather. We had never heard of KFC, though the jingle for the local fried chicken place — “Don’t cook tonight, call Chicken Delight!” — is forever seared in my brain. Pizza was something we ordered for parties.

My mom leaned heavily on packaged foods for our lunches — I am part of perhaps the last generation that went home for lunch every day. Lunches were  Campbell’s Chicken Noodle, Tomato, or Split Pea Soup, Beef-a-Roni, individual frozen pizzas warmed up in the toaster oven, Morton’s pot pies, noodles with jarred spaghetti sauce, and the like.  But well over 90% of our dinners were home-cooked, consisting of meat or poultry, a cooked vegetable, often a salad, and potatoes or rice. Too, sweetened drinks had not yet taken over the world. It would never have occurred to Mom to give us soda or juice drinks with meals; we drank milk.

As more and more women took jobs outside the home, the role of convenience foods grew. They seemed a terrific solution to the time crunch problem. Cooking class was dropped from school curricula, and most of a generation grew up thinking of cooking as an arcane skill. The dependence on carry-out and frozen foods grew — and so did waistlines and diabetes rates. After fifty years of increasing dependence on packaged and carry-out foods the sobering fact that it has been killing us has finally sunk in.

But why did it take so long? Why did my parents’ generation, and then mine, fall prey so easily?

Because it had never happened before. There was no precedent for too much food, much of it of questionable nutritional quality, being available too easily.

Remember, my parents’ generation grew up during the Depression when many were fortunate to eat at all. After the Depression came World War II, and with it, food rationing. The first food to be rationed in the United States was sugar, starting in 1942. Eventually, meat, lard, shortening, oils, cheese, butter, margarine, processed foods in general — such as were available at the time — dried fruit, jams, jellies, and fruit butters were all rationed as well. The opportunity to overeat these things — or, for most, to overeat at all — simply didn’t exist.

Earlier, during World War I, while actual rationing was not imposed, the population was urged to reduce consumption of meat, wheat, sugar, and fats, sparing these foods to be sent over to war-torn Europe. People were urged instead to eat fruits and vegetables, since they did not ship well. Americans complied, consuming about 15% less food than they had been eating in the years leading up to the war.  And, of course, what food they had largely had to be prepared at home. So my grandparents’ generation, too, did not have access to unlimited food with no work.

Before that? The American South went through a time of great privation during Reconstruction. Pellagra, the niacin deficiency disease that eventually ends in madness and death, was rampant among poor rural Southerners who had little to eat but beans and cornbread. Meanwhile, those out on the frontiers, headed west, largely had what food they could hunt, gather, or garden.

In short, nobody had a clue what eating too much, especially eating too much cheap, sugary, starchy food, would do. If you’d asked a mother whose rail-thin children were starting to show signs of pellagra, or an Oklahoma family driven to the road by the dust bowl, if a hamburger and some fried potatoes would be good or bad for them, they would have looked at you as if you were crazy. When you are starving, all food is good food.

But now that we’ve had a good half-century to experiment with unlimited food, much of it addictive and of negligible nutritional value, requiring no work — not even walking into the restaurant to pick it up — we’ve seen what it can do. That people are alarmed and resistance is growing is encouraging. Let us strive to be an example as our society considers what direction our food culture will head next.

4 Replies to “Thoughts On The Rise Of Junk Food”

  1. It was so long ago that I read it, so it must have been you that mooted the point that the biblical “staff of life” (bread) would keep you alive, but not make you a healthy person. All junk food – any food – will keep you alive, until you are in a position to eat GOOD food. We are designed to eat a HFLC diet. It’s what made humans intelligent.

  2. Amazing to think how many of us have no clue what we are putting into our bodies. I ran across a new pre-packaged food in the grocery, labeled “Paleo”, and was very excited! It looked wonderful! Until I read the ingredients. Sugar, wheat, potatoes, corn. Unfortunately, the industry is as yet still unregulated, similar to the “lite” craze from a few years back. I have to wonder how many will buy and consume those meals, never having a clue.

  3. Dana, I am SO happy you are blogging again – I always come back to your books for a good dose of common sense and straight-forward advice. You’re the best.

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