Garbage in Every Can

We have become so used to the staggering abundance of food in 21st century first-world economies that we are apt to forget just how much of it—-the vast majority of it—is garbage, figuratively and in some cases quite literally. While having the appearance of abundance, the modern supermarket, and overwhelmingly the modern restaurant, are simply clever delivery mechanisms for various permutations of garbage: industrial chemicals blended into cheap muffins and danishes, third-rate dairy products cooked in order to conceal their obvious inferiority, fake fish, mountains upon mountains of processed wheat and refined sugar, bread injected with preservatives and conditioners and corn syrup in order to conceal its self-evident low quality, billions of gallons of soda.

The free market types (and I am one of them) like to point out that the proof is in the pudding, as it were: at no time in history has the human race been more well-fed and satiated than it is now. That is true: in the annals of human history, we have never had our bellies so full—of garbage. Over three-quarters of the average American’s caloric intake comes from food that is at least moderately processed; over three-fifths come from food that is “highly processed—multi-ingredient industrial mixtures that are no longer recognizable as their original plant or animal source.”

The proof is indeed in the pudding, almost literally: two-thirds of Americans today are overweight, and it will probably be 3/4 by the end of the decade. Thirty percent of us are obese. This is indicative of a diet of poison, not health. It is indeed preferable to starving to death—I suppose. But what a dismal dichotomy.

In Europe they have taken some proactive steps to fend off the tide of garbage. In London they recently banned fast food restaurants within 400 meters of school buildings, while a leading medical organization is calling for a ban on junk food television ads while children might be watching. France recently banned unlimited soft drinks in restaurants. Ireland recently undertook to forbid “unhealthy food sponsorships aimed at children attending primary school.”

These are excellent solutions—if you are a statist whose sovereignty has been willingly outsourced to a cadre of petty tyrant busybody bureaucrats. The United States, the people of which even at this late hour still retain a modicum of dignity ordered toward our precious freedoms, has no use for the heavy, scratchy horse blanket of nanny state politics. Such regulations are an irritant to the American mind, something properly held in contempt and dismissed with sneers and rolled eyes. It drives progressives crazy when you laugh uproariously at the pathetic politics of European social democracy. Good—–laugh about it often.

So—barring a revolution of European-style regulatory oversight in this country—it is up to us to decide what to do about the garbage; whether or not we will continue to eat from the bounty of genuinely nasty food that forms the majority of our food supply. I am even now hopeful that the average American is capable of turning away from it all, that we can begin a shift away from the garbage and towards clean meat, healthy eggs, whole vegetables, raw fruit, water—–the basic building blocks of a healthy and satisfying food life.

But sometimes I doubt it—especially when I see someone eating a packaged cupcake or a frozen pound cake or a microwave burrito and they throw up their hands and exclaim, “I don’t even want to know what’s in it.” Imagine if you took the same approach to buying a house, or renting a hotel room, or choosing a spouse: “I don’t even want to know what’s in it.” That we make this exception so often for food—the stuff that keeps us alive, that literally builds us—is something of a genuine mystery.

My own family has made genuine strides toward eliminating most of the garbage from our refrigerator and our pantry. I say that not with pride (though we are proud of it) but rather an emphasis on what it takes to do this. If you want to start eating healthier, and as a result feeling and being healthier, you must do these things:

First, commit yourself to cooking in the home as much as possible. No, not one meal a week, or two, or three. Try nineteen or twenty. Don’t let it be a rare occasion; don’t be the person who says, “I cooked last night!” as if it were a novelty. Make it a non-novelty, workaday, part of your schedule. Buy an apron; aprons are invaluable. Sometimes you’ll screw up—you forgot to thaw the meat, a recipe turned into a disaster, you were too busy to grocery shop—and you may need to spring for a take-out meal somewhere. But for the most part you can do it. Make your breakfast, your lunch and your dinner at home. Eat leftovers. Plan ahead. Use the crockpot.

Second, start shopping—honest-to-goodness shopping, the kind that would make a star homemaker from the 1940s proud. When you grocery shop, buy only whole foods: meat, eggs, dairy, fruit, vegetables, maybe some staples (flour, sugar, etc). Do the farmer’s market if you can afford it (most of you can). Eschew even the nominally healthy cans of soup—they’re usually loaded with garbage, multisyllabic stuff you’ve never heard of. Make your own soup; make your own broth, too. It’s easy. Avoid even the “organic” processed food, which is usually but two or so steps removed from the garbage a few aisles over. If you see a processed food you like, find a recipe to make it from scratch. Consider making your own bread.

(At this point you might be shaking your head, saying: “I don’t have time to do any of this.” I have news for you: you almost certainly do have time. The person who says “I don’t have time to cook” is very likely lying, either to himself or, for whatever reason, to you. In 21st century America, with an astonishing array of time-saving kitchen devices and shopping options that make cooking easier than any other time in human history, very few people are genuinely incapable of making meals. Cooking is usually a matter of priority, not possibility.)

Third: begin to love food. No, not as a glutton loves food—rather as a chef loves it, recognizing that food nourishes us and it should be tasty and enjoyable as a result. Appreciate the power and simple joy of good cooking, of preparing a good and healthy meal, of serving it to your loved ones or yourself. Begin to recognize that the mountains of garbage peddled by the food industry every day—the snack cakes, the chips, the “fruit” snacks, the microwave taquitos, the breaded and frozen fish wedges, the canned biscuits—-is the antithesis of what food should be.

An optional fourth directive: talk to people about cooking and food, especially people who don’t eat or cook well. Don’t badger or even proselytize; just talk about it. Have them over for dinner; give silent witness to good cooking and eating. Show that it requires work, but not particularly hard work; demonstrate that it is rewarding, and very much so.

There are people who will accuse you of being “elitist” because you’ve done away with additives and preservatives and artificial flavors and colorings. Fine: that’s the point. Genuinely good food is elite, i.e. it is superior to bad food. This is a tautology. If everyone ate “elite” food over the garbage—if everyone were “elitist” in this regard—that would be fantastic! The people who think eschewing garbage food in favor of good food is “elitist” are people who, for some strange reason, are uncomfortable with objective truths. No matter: invite them over for dinner, too.

If you can do none of these things, then at least try this: the next time you reach for some ultraprocessed, ultrapreserved culinary knick-knack in the grocery store, turn the package around, look at the ingredients, and then ask yourself: Do I really want to eat all of this stuff? Do I want to put it into my body? Why?

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