I saw a commercial last night for a Healthy Choice meal that represents just about everything that is wrong with American culture. The ad begins with Julia Louis-Dreyfus telling her agent with a note of surprise that the Fresh Mixers, Rotini & Zesty Marinara Sauce “tastes fresh.” Her amazement is the only part of the ad that makes sense. It is hard to imagine that microwaved pasta might be described as fresh.
I guess it might depend on what we mean by fresh. On Princeton’s Wordnet, the two definitions of “fresh” that are related to food require recent preparation or not having been canned or otherwise preserved. The connection is not immediately obvious for a “shelf stable” product. IDEO, the consultancy firm that designed Fresh Mixers, brags on their website that their “concept has evolved into a new product offering for ConAgra, allowing the company to expand its portfolio further into the competitive shelf-stable meal category.” Doesn’t that sound fresh? Yes, if by fresh we mean, “improperly bold or forward.” To be fair, what they perhaps mean to say is that the food seems fresh. The contents certainly appear more like food than, say, the classic Handi-Snacks, which contain a tub of bright orange processed cheese-food product and a red plastic stick used to spread it.
Or perhaps they do mean recently prepared, though the idea of preparation has also gone virtual. IDEO touts “packaging that allows consumers to add water, boil uncooked rice or pasta in the microwave and then strain before eating – a process reminiscent of stovetop cooking.” It is too bad that we cannot somehow recapture that magic of true stovetop cooking. Apparently we need a new product whose packaging confers the benefits of “customization of flavor, transparency of ingredients, and an experience that builds off existing cooking behaviors.” I wonder which cooking behaviors they are referring to, the lost art of boiling water or the use of the microwave?
Louis-Dreyfus anticipates our skepticism that microwaved and fresh could describe the same product. She does not, however, express any wonder that this highly processed meal could be healthy. Why should she? We all seem to believe that health is something that can be created in a food lab and controlled by processing plants.
When I left for college, I translated my parents’ lowfat diet to a slightly oversimplified formula: fat = bad, fat free = good. I practically had a heart attack if someone tried to add butter to my food, but fat free soft frozen yogurt and bagels with fat free cream cheese were staples of my diet. I wondered why I didn’t lose any weight. In the grocery store I read every label for grams of fat, ignoring the actual food contents. Many years later, I finally let go of the idea that all fat was evil, a conclusion that science had long since disavowed but lots of Americans continued to cling to, especially processed food companies, who implied that Gummi Bears are health food because they are fat free.
After I decided that maybe lowfat is not synonymous with good food, I still relied on nutrition labels to tell me if what I was eating was healthy or not. I just looked for different information. Saturated fats, sugars, and later, trans fats played the role of public healthy enemy number one. Whole grains, even if they were just whole grain colored food, were heroes, though I was never sure whether I wanted soluble or insoluble dietary fiber. Healthy Choice meals are an outgrowth of this philosophy. On their website you cannot find the ingredients of their Fresh Mixers, but you can find complete “nutrition information” instead. Message: to evaluate our product, you don’t need to know what we put in it, but rather the laboratory analysis of its nutrients and how many calories are in a serving.
I think I knew there was something wrong with this theory, but couldn’t put my finger on it. I needed Michael Pollan to explain it to me. In his book, In Defense of Food Pollan argues against the whole idea that food can be understood as collections of nutrients to add or subtract outside the context of the whole food, a dietary paradigm which he calls Nutritionism. Reading his book I realized that my whole life in food had been predicated on that idea. Every day there are new studies about which foods are now superfoods, and which were once healthy but turn out to be bad for us, and I tried to follow it all. I was getting Prevention Magazine for a while, and looked for their nutritional advice from the experts. Each month it seemed that I was supposed to substitute one food for another—a low fat dessert for a high fat one, a reduced sugar snack for a sugary treat, an exotic fruit for a familiar one, a whole grain version of a processed snack, baked instead of fried, omega threes instead of omega sixes. Each new one-month diet seemed only partly compatible with the previous, as it was based on different experts and different studies. Eating healthy had never been so complicated.
As a society, Pollan says, we think we need experts to tell us what to eat, when it really is not so complex. Humans have been able to find healthy diets across many continents for most of our history. It’s only now that we created a processed food diet that we find ourselves confused as well as overweight and unhealthy. He says we’ve always known that a healthful diet includes eating whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. His simple advice is to eat foods that our ancestors would recognize as foods, instead of the packaged processed food products we have come to confuse with real food.
Here’s a clue that Healthy Choice doesn’t fit his criteria: at the end of the commercial, the announcer tells us to look for Fresh Mixers in the soup or pasta aisle. In other words, the meal is so far removed from real food, that we don’t know how it might be categorized. We don’t even know how to find it in the supermarket.
I guess I’ve entered a new paradigm, which once again is causing me to feel smug about my dietary choices. “I don’t eat that; I only eat whole foods,” I try not to say aloud, especially since it’s so hard to find the time to follow through. I think even more than that, I’m still angry that I fell for all those health claims. I really believed eating crappy tasting margarine my parents served me was going to make me healthier, when it turns out that the hydrogenated fat was worse than the butter it replaced. I still am in the habit of avoiding egg yolks because of the cholesterol, even though I know now that studies have shown that people who regularly eat whole eggs actually have lower cholesterol than people who don’t. And what of all those low fat and then low sugar foods I ate, with promises that I would be thinner and healthier? Each one had fat or sugar substitute, and what has been the cost of consuming them all?
It’s not just the elegant labels and TV stars who have convinced us that there is something good for us inside those not-quite-identifiable-food packages. It’s our steadfast belief that we can outdo nature. We think scientists can create food that is better than what a home cook could prepare with whole ingredients; the Healthy Choice processing plant can make the same dish that grandma used to slave over with lower fat, lower sugar, higher protein, more flavor, and, best of all, it’s ready in five minutes. Michael Pollan points out that in fact, eating this way has made us significantly less healthy.
I suspect that most of us know that Healthy Choice isn’t, strictly speaking, the healthiest way to eat. Probably more important than our hope that the health claims on the package mean that we will actually become healthier after eating the product, is the time factor. The Healthy Choice meal is all about the fact that we don’t want to take time out to eat, much less prepare food. On Amazon.com, where I guess I should not have been surprised to find the Healthy Choice Fresh Mixers, numerous customer reviewers said they were a good choice to eat at your desk at work. It’s a given in our culture that we don’t even stop working to eat lunch. Our frantic paced lifestyle makes us think that while there may be merit in making our own healthy meals, only people from centuries past had time for it. Sometimes I feel guilty when I take out time for lunch at work. When I do sit down to the lunch table with colleagues, most of them are popping microwave meals into the oven, which only a couple months ago I used to do, too.
Knowing all this about our food culture, I was still horrified by the ad, to think about the belief that in order to have meals taste fresh, we should process the foods more and package them more cleverly, as opposed to cooking a meal (and then eating leftovers for lunch). We want to be able to order six-packs of such meals through Amazon, and have them taste fresh.
The reason the food is fresh tasting, the ad suggests, is because the product has a device for cooking the pasta inside the plastic container, and then adding the sauce afterward. It should be noted that this choice is a substitute for making a meal consisting of pasta and sauce. We’ve completely lost touch with the idea of preparing healthy food from wholesome ingredients like flour and eggs, tomatoes, garlic and olive oil. No, forget about making our own pasta and sauce. Now we need special packaging to spare us from all the work entailed by boiling water to reconstitute dried pasta and reheating pre-made sauce. Instead of taking those 15 minutes to prepare dinner, we want a tv dinner, which has been made over to “taste fresh” and be a “healthy choice.”
There are clear dangers in eating this way. We know that the indigestion from eating while working is a signal that we should stop and enjoy our food, but we’re in too much of a rush to do it. We know that ingesting high fructose corn syrup used to add fresh flavor back and chemical additives or processes used to make the food stable in containers cannot ultimately be good for us. Still, we believe if a package says it’s healthy, we don’t have to worry. For me, I used to believe that most anything I found in the health food section was relatively good for me, and relatively healthy seemed good enough, especially if I was in a rush.
I would argue that in making food easier to prepare than opening a jar of sauce and boiling pasta we’ve introduced yet another problem. An unnecessary possible health risk comes from the required cooking inside a plastic container. I used to think that my colleague who claimed that the chemicals from the plastics could end up in our food and harm us was an alarmist. Then multiple studies found that BPA, which has been in our food containers for decades, has been leaching into our food and has been showing up in our urine. According to an article in Scientific American, studies in animals showed that this estrogen-like compound could cause cancer, infertility, and other health problems. BPA from plastic containers enters the food or liquid, and 55 times faster when the food or liquid is heated. It’s still on the market, which doesn’t mean that it’s in the Healthy Choice containers, but given that chemicals from the plastic have been proven to enter the food and then our bodies, doesn’t it seem prudent not to use plastic for cooking food? Is it really so difficult for us to prepare food in such a way that doesn’t require new-fangled way to cook it in the microwave at work?
I agree with Michael Pollan that it’s time to rethink our attitude towards food. I asked my students in my Media Literacy and Pop Culture class the other day what the single serving package of Baked Doritos, which one student had in her purse, says about our culture. If some aliens came to visit our planet and looked at the fact that we tend to chose Baked Doritos over a whole food like corn on the cob, what would they learn about us?
It’s simple: Doritos taste good, the class agreed. I challenged them to think about what we like about Doritos. For instance, what exactly is Nacho Cheese? It’s not actually a food, but a flavor developed by chemists in secretive labs. Doritos taste good not because they resemble any kind of actual cheese. Rather, the artificial flavorings create an idealized taste which hits the right flavor notes to produce a pleasurable sensation, not of cheese, but something we like even more. Eating Doritos is another way our culture puts stock in the idea that we can do nature one better. Further, the chips use against us our natural desire for salty, sweet, and fatty tastes, to create a flavor that we instantly crave after the first chip. I feel betrayed by the fact that my mouth waters just thinking about it; I try not to eat Doritos, and never buy a bag, but the taste memory lies dormant in my subconscious. If I’m hungry and a bag of Doritos is lying around at work, sometimes I can’t just walk away, nor can I have just one chip.
We know Doritos are bad for us. That’s why there are baked Doritos. The Baked Doritos and Healthy Choice meal have this in common: They both play on the now-discredited belief that lowering the fat content makes food healthy. The baked Dorito is a particularly egregious example. Maybe they are slightly less bad for us because of the reduced fat, and slightly fewer calories, but are these fluorescent orange squares that never spoil actually food? The little bag of Doritos is part of the same food culture that normalizes eating lunch at one’s desk.
We pick Doritos, my students said, because in today’s world, we have to eat on the go. You can’t very well eat corn on the cob while you’re driving. They are precisely right, of course. I ask them, why is it a good idea to eat while driving? They look at me like I’m the alien from another planet. I wonder how I am going to get them to question why our culture values convenience above most everything else. They’re by no means alone in taking for granted that spending less time on everyday activities, including eating and preparing food, is an important goal. Exhibit A: Healthy Choice Fresh Mixers, “delivering a fresher, better-tasting meal solution.”