We were holidaying in a picturesque small town in the south of France, and immediately it was quite noticeable the quality of food was superb, rather better than in the big towns. The local shops do not stock much but what they had was seasonal, tasty and also expensive compared to home. Nevertheless we bought lots of delicious summery fruits and vegetables to eat at the villa.
This reminded me of the immense variety of food items in large supermarkets. On the surface, it might look like we are spoiled for choice due to the practically infinite stretches of food options along the aisles in huge supermarkets. But is this true? Do most people have any genuine choices?
Calories have to go somewhere
Many Western governments provided huge subsidies and incentives to the agricultural sector after World War II. This investment in new farming technologies meant that even before the beginning of this century, farms were producing around 6,000 calories of food a day in terms of grains, vegetables, fruits and meat/dairy products for every person alive on the planet at the time.
The 6,000 calories per person do not take into account sugar and other sweeteners, just food crops and meat/dairy. And humans need only 2,000 calories or less a day to survive.
Faced with such a huge calorific surplus, the food industry had to use the excess production in other ways – and one was the expansion of the meat industry where many billions of calories are converted into more expensive meat proteins and dairy products.
Another way to profit from the over-abundance of cheap calories is to simply feed it to people, under the guise of offering “choice” at “affordable prices”.
The expansion of the meat industry means the world is now producing some 335 million tonnes of meat each year, with levels heading higher every year. Current production means that every American would be eating over 100kg of meat on average each year.
Globally, the average annual meat consumption would be 43.7kg per person. If that instinctively sounds excessive, then maybe it is because modern humans do not need to eat any meat at all. In any case, humans need only 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight on a daily basis and plant proteins are just as effective as animal proteins.
The increase in meat production and consumption means that estimates for both from 2014 have already been exceeded. The old figures are quoted in my previous article Vegetarianism And Other Dietary Tales from 2017, and in it, you can also assess the impact of meat production in terms of greenhouse gases.
How many calories can we eat?
In many parts of the world, the simple answer is too much, especially if people are living in countries which are influenced by American lifestyles. We do not have them yet in the EU, but when I was in Florida, one could rent motorised carts to drive around in supermarkets which are larger than my village.
The carts were fitted with vast trolleys into which you dump whatever food items you like, and eventually you end up at over-sized checkouts belts as large as pavements. Over-consuming food is without doubt one of the leading causes of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases, but that is not the only detrimental consequence.
A greater tragedy
To get people to buy more food (and hence calories), the food industry has spent huge sums of money over decades to optimise ways to induce people to prefer the taste of processed foods. Generally, this would involve the addition of sugar, salt and other flavouring compounds, many of which are synthetic.
Research in the US found some modern foods have three or more times the amount of sugar compared to similar foods just 70 years ago. This is supported by charts showing the average American in 1950 consumed less than 30kg a year compared to an estimated 68kg of sugar annually this year. In fact, Americans would be eating even more sugar if it was not for the widespread use of cheaper artificial sweeteners found in many processed food items.
But the real tragedy is that many people now do not know the taste of real food. During our holidays, the daughter of a friend did not like food that was not smothered in ketchup. In the past, the son of a guest would not eat a lovely baked fish, and insisted on fried fish fingers.
The problem is simply that if one’s sense of taste is brainwashed into preferring junk food, it is often a difficult route back to enjoying proper food, in the way our sense of taste has evolved over many millennia.
The main issue, of course, is that the food industry relies on people preferring and buying their processed versions of meats, vegetables, fruits, baked goods, etc. The whole idea is to pervert the taste buds of consumers, especially children, so that they grow up thinking that a sweet cola drink is the natural way to quench thirst instead of water, for example.
Similarly, vegetables are softened, sweetened and flavoured to such an extent that carrots taste like tubes of sweet mush, which I last experienced in a motorway café. The meat in the dish was even worse. But I also could not help noticing that everyone else in the café was eating everything on their plates.
The point of eating
Perhaps it is the prevalence of processed foods and/or maybe it is because huge amounts of food are easily affordable and available, but many people are now confusing volume with quality when defining what constitutes a “good meal”. Many people these days believe a great meal is defined by huge helpings of foods and sweet desserts rather than delicate, balanced, fine portions of excellent fresh ingredients.
In the modern world, the point of eating is enjoyment, followed by positive nutrition. Our health is significantly affected by what we eat, and clearly many people are not eating correctly based on the statistics on obesity, diabetes and other dietary diseases. The inescapable conclusion is that enjoying the wrong kind of food is encouraging various negative forms of nutrition, which then induce health-threatening issues.
As an aside, if you want to cut down the amount you eat, change your plates/bowls to smaller plates/bowls. There would be less of a visual cue to overeat with smaller plates and/or bowls. And drink half a litre of water before a meal to fill up the stomach beforehand.
There is a pile of research which indicates that the upsurge in coronary heart disease (CHD) in the West several decades ago was significantly related to the widespread use of partially-hydrogenated fats or trans-fats, which was used extensively to cook and especially to deep-fry foods in many homes and restaurants.
The blame for CHD at the time was placed on saturated animal fats which encouraged people to switch to margarines made from trans-fats, and of course, the incidence of severe heart diseases did not change.
The issue is trans-fats do not exist in nature and their artificial molecular configuration confuses the body’s processing of dietary fats. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, every 2% of calories derived from trans-fats raise the risk of heart disease by 23%. For more details, please read my article A Fat Lot of Good – Part 2 .
I mention this as a mild caution: there is no guarantee that processed foods are wholesome. The food industry also knew about the health dangers of excess dietary sugar in the 1970s, and did nothing apart from adding even more sugar into their consumer products.
However, the food industry is not to blame as their job is to sell as any many calories as possible. They are sitting on a mountain of calories every day, so they have to produce enticing, entertaining food for people to eat. After all, if people did not buy and eat processed foods, the base ingredients would probably be fed to animals or turned into compost, which would not be so profitable.
So how much choice do average shoppers have when walking into a heavily-stocked supermarket? Will they choose what their bodies need, or the calories the food industry wants them to buy?The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.