I had an interesting question put to me by a reader in response to my Guess What? We Spend Less Than Ever on Food post:
What about the quality of the food consumed?
What a great question. If one can make the case that the foods in the 1930s and 40s were higher quality than the foods available now, it would clearly undermine the value of food being so much more affordable than it was in the past.
But how do you measure food quality? It can't be measured objectively or quantitatively in the way food costs can be measured. And I wasn't alive in the 1930s to eat overly-salted mushy beans and peas with my grandparents.
Here are some metrics I'd consider in order to think about a qualitative assessment of food quality:
1) Range of foods available/choices for the consumer.
2) Foods available out of season or from far away.
3) Food flavor, taste and texture
4) Food nutritional content
5) Food purity, or food pesticide or hormone content
6) Food safety/health risks
A few thoughts:
Regarding points 1-4: Clearly, the range of foods and the choices available to the consumer have expanded massively in recent decades. Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, once said that the average number of products carried by a typical supermarket has more than tripled to 50,000 since 1980 alone, and the range of produce, meats, cheeses and specialty foods available to consumers today is of a level our great-grandparents would find inconceivable. And no one thinks it's a big deal any more to find apples or strawberries in the produce aisles during the middle of winter or pineapples at any time year round.
This is a good thing, albeit with some accompanying drawbacks--for example, we need to face up to the environmental and economic costs implicit in routinely buying produce out of season, since that produce comes at higher prices and with an incremental carbon footprint.
In fact, the sheer choice available to us year-round in our grocery stores has driven a new and unique form of ignorance among many consumers--many consumers have no idea what fruits or vegetables are "in season" at any given time, and some are unaware that most produce has seasons at all! It makes me wonder if sometimes our extremely efficient food industry, with its unparalleled shipping and logistics capabilities, has given us a bit too much convenience for our own good.
Of course, if you're oblivious to the produce seasons in your area, you will pay more for poorer quality food. But that particular form of ignorance can be largely cured by paying attention to the ebb and flow of prices and products in your local grocery store over the course of the year. And while the nutritional content of some of the 50,000 foods in our grocery stores may be suspect (e.g.: "shelf-life enhanced" products like Twinkies or Doritos), these are foods consumers have a choice to buy--or not buy.
Again, when we can walk into nearly any grocery store anywhere in the USA and choose from a range of fruits, vegetables, grains and meats that our grandparents could only dream of, we likewise have access to far better range of nutrition than was available during our grandparents' era.
Points 4-6 are much more difficult. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s nobody used hormones, antibiotics or CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) when farming animals. We may be paying an unknown price for cheap meat. On the other hand, there was widespread use of DDT as an agricultural insecticide beginning shortly after World War II. Modern pesticides, fortunately, are required by law to be biodegradable and thus are less likely to compound in the bodies of humans--or wildlife, for that matter.
My thoughts on health and safety are mixed. Clearly, it seems like there's been a rash of e. coli and salmonella contaminations over the past few years. But has there really been an increase in outbreaks, or does it just feel that way because our media industry has found this subject to be a particularly effective attention-grabber? I'd be very curious to see if there is any data on deaths due to food safety issues over the past several decades. My guess, based on admittedly pure speculation, is that per-capita food safety deaths are probably a fraction of what they were decades ago, despite the contrary impression we get from our media.
Readers, what are your thoughts on these subjects? Where am I wrong?
One final thought: One of the best things about blogging is the opportunity for give and take with readers, especially with inquisitive, rigorous and insightful readers like the ones I'm so lucky to have here at Casual Kitchen. Thanks, as always, for your comments and opinions.
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