The Dumbing Down of Food

The Dumbing Down of Food

And Why We Need to Own our own Food Future

The summer shortly after I had turned 9 years old, I was visiting my grandparents. One day, my grandmother took me into her kitchen to teach me how to make cookies. I still remember they were made with flour, eggs, real peanut butter and real sugar sprinkled on top, complete with the pressed fork marks. The year was 1975.

Fast forward to today. If you want cookies, you’ll either buy packaged ones in a grocery store or you might visit a baker. The number of people cooking at home seems to be smaller than ever. Many of us have already lost the know-how and even will to cook for ourselves. When I lived in New York City, I cooked for myself maybe 10 times in 6 years. My friends in London also rarely cook at home. My friends in Singapore eat out constantly because it’s fast, cheap and easy. We’re all busy, fair enough. But the added convenience and time savings come with a great cost: we’re forgetting how to cook (microwaves don’t count) and we’re also forgetting about food itself. Kids today think that chicken comes from the grocery store, not a farm. How did this happen?

We are well on our way to becoming a planet of food illiterates. Few of us actually really understand what we put in our bodies. For so long, consumers have blindly followed television advertisements or believed in labels promising that things like “All Natural” are good for us. Sure, we have organic, but certified by which organization? The US Department of Agriculture? California Certified Organic Farmers? Oregon Tilth? Sweden’s KRAV? France’s Agriculture Biologique? With dozens of certifying bodies, there is no world-wide consensus on organic certification. That’s just for organics. What about fair trade, biodynamic, sustainable, kosher, halal, preservatives, colorants, additives and the many additional classifications? Labeling inconsistencies between countries or even between jurisdictions in the same country cause tremendous consumer confusion and increase the cost of production, marketing and the final retail product.

We now know that eating so much processed food causes a litany of health issues like obesity, diabetes, cancer and more. Currently afoot is a kind of new food revolution, a concept espoused by Jamie Oliver. Nevertheless, and unfortunately, the notion of eating healthy, buying organic, eating less meat or following a vegetarian diet still comes with a stigma. Slow Food tells us that food should be “good, clean and fair.” We couldn’t agree more, but it also needs to be “accessible, affordable and transparent.”

For decades, we’ve sold our food souls to multinational corporations which brought us cheaper food indeed, and which achieved consistency in flavor, nutrition, packaging and other metrics used to gauge their performance. This is one reason why it’s cheaper to import bananas and sugar to most Caribbean island states, where bananas and sugar cane used to grow natively. From an efficiency standpoint, that just doesn’t make sense. Why raze your local crops so a big corporation can send you weekly shipping containers full of fresh fruits and vegetables? Small island states send their hard-earned currency to executives in New York City, Miami and Paris, who are getting rich in the process. We won’t even talk about the carbon footprint.

Our sense of taste and even satisfaction with what we eat has morphed into something dangerous to our health. One hundred years ago, food was sold and used when it was just harvested, butchered or made. Today, food has to be cheap, it has to look perfect, and it has to last a long time for transport and in your refrigerator. It’s true that the amount of nutrients, vitamins and minerals in our food today is often a tenth of what it was 100 years ago.Meanwhile, the size of our dinner plates has increased. In the 1960s, the size of the average American dinner plate was 9 inches (23 cm). By the 1980s, it had increased to 10 inches (25.4 cm). By the year 2000, it had reached 11 inches (28 cm) and today, dinner plates are often 12 inches (30.5 cm) in diameter. And it’s no secret that many American celiacs can travel to Europe and eat non-GMO wheat without any celiac consequences.

It’s so easy to say yes to comfort food like American grilled cheese sandwich on toasted white bread served with Campbell’s canned tomato soup. In other countries, the equivalent might be bratwurst and beer, fish and chips, an open faced sandwich and so on. These dishes are easy to make at home with better quality ingredients that are locally sourced and healthier for our bodies.
The bottom line is that we need to be responsible for our own food future: what we eat, what we are allowed to buy, the flavors we favor, and so on. If we don’t, then we have no one to blame but ourselves. Change is happening. Some of us have already found the right path with food. And in some lesser developed countries, the problem is thankfully not as severe as it is in some of the more developed nations. Let’s aim for “good, clean, fair, accessible, affordable and transparent” food, food manufacturing and food systems. We’ll be healthier and happier citizens of the world for it.

Photo Credit: New Line Cinema, from the movie, Dumb and Dumber

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