The Worst Lie of the Food Blogosphere

On food blogs all over the internet, and in most of the conversations we have in the real world, there is an ugly lie that contaminates and deeply distorts our views about food:

"Food companies are evil."

It's the worst lie we can possibly tell our readers.

I know I've got some explaining to do, so stay with me. First of all, companies are not evil. They don't have feelings. They aren't people. They aren't anything.

The real truth is that companies simply make and sell products and services because there is demand for the products and services they make and sell.

Question: Who created that demand? After all, the last time you went to Chili's (or Applebees's, or McDonald's or wherever) and mindlessly ate a processed, hyperpalatable meal, did you do so against your will? Did some sniveling marketing executive put a gun to your head and force you to buy that $4.49 bag of Doritos? Are you overweight because somebody force-fed you and then forbade you to exercise? Are you really that powerless?

To whine about "Big Food," or to blame the Evil Food Industry for cultural problems like obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease is utterly pointless. It is futile and emasculating. You're giving all your power away to the food industry and then sitting there whimpering and wringing your hands.

Fact: The food industry has no power over us at all. On the contrary, the food industry exists to serve us! What Big Food does simply reflects what we as consumers want. And to buy products from the food industry and then turn around and blame it for being greedy because it sells us the very products we buy is the absolute height of hypocrisy. Please remember this and stop whining.

Understanding this concept is the key to subverting the food industry, because it jolts you into taking your power back into your own hands. It stops you from mewling and complaining about Big Food and instead encourages you to stand up and take responsibility for the decisions you make with your food dollars and with your diet.

Stand up and demand foods that are healthy and reasonably priced. They are out there, and they are surprisingly easy to find (here's a long list of laughably cheap and easy recipes you can use to help you get started). Buy these foods, and then talk to the manager of your grocery store and tell him or her that you'd like to see more foods like this on the shelves.

Adopt empowering spending habits. Don't be a drone and buy the same items at the same grocery store every week. Spend your consumer dollars on a wider range of food products, and visit a wider range of markets and stores in your community. Finally, don't waste your money on processed and heavily-advertised foods--instead, allocate your food dollars to products that provide real value to you.

If just a fraction of the general public took these steps, the food industry would break its own back bending over backwards to meet our demand. Until then, however, we will get the food industry we deserve.

Who holds the power now?

Addendum: Readers! Be sure to check out this follow-up article in which I address a logic error present in many of the strongest objections to this post.

Related Posts:
Survivor Bias: Why "Big Food" Isn't Quite As Evil As You Think It Is
Obesity and the Obama Administration: A Blogger Roundtable Discussion
Dumb and Dumber: The Flaws of Measuring Food Costs Using Cost Per Nutrient and Cost Per Calorie
The Pros and Cons of Restaurant Calorie Labeling Laws

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Unknown said...

Not sure I agree that it's the worst lie, but it's definitely well up there.
In general as a society we are too used to giving up control, and blaming someone else for our own mistakes and misfortunes, blaming "big food" for poor choices and laziness is just another in a long list of these things. Taking responsibility for ourselves in everything we do, whether it's choosing a pizza or a burger instead of that salad, (or driving too fast, or running with scissors) should be something we do instead of looking for a societal scapegoat.

Geez, I guess I found my soap box there. Thanks for the article, gets you thinking!

Amber said...

I don't necessarily agree. There are plenty of 'convenience foods' that once upon a time were perfectly healthful for you. Case in point: Campbell's Tomato Soup. I'm pretty darned sure that when Campbell's was founded in 1869, this soup didn't contain high fructose corn syrup. Today, it does.

High Fructose corn syrup is dangerous. Dangerous because we don't get enough information about which one is in our food. There are over 20 different versions, all with different levels of fructose. Fructose is processed by your body 60 times faster than glucose, which, over time, can wreak havoc on your endocrine system with all it's ups and downs. Sugar crash like woah. Over and over again.

Sure, high fructose corn syrup is safe in moderation. But when it's in the soup you've made for lunch, the Saltines you've crushed on top of it, the yogurt you thought was a healthy dessert.. it's no longer moderation.

And that, my friend, is evil. There's been a bait and switch of the foods we got into the habit of eating 60 years ago. What started out as a little bit more convenient, but just as good, has been filled with cheaper substitutes for food. Things that aren't actually 'food'.

Sure, I pay more for organic. Not because I think it tastes better, but because I can be guaranteed there's no HFCS in that food. Food with the "All Natural" label can't say the same, because the FDA basically says if it ever started as a plant, it's "natural". HFCS was at one time corn, and therefore, "natural".

I do vote with my money. But not everyone can afford to. We're trapped in a cycle of cheap bad food, and many people don't have the means to break out of that. I mean, if you had $5 to feed your family, which would you do: buy 5 $1 hamburgers from MCD's, or buy two organic apples?

Tim said...

I almost agree with you, in theory (although your rhetorical style is a little condescending). But the theory is pretty far from most people's lives. There are issues of access and education that make the sort of empowerment you speak of very difficult, and big business knows it.
I think to call it laziness, or apathy is too easy and the problem (and solution) is a lot more complex than you are making it here. Being reductive about it and complaining that "we" are whining and emasculated (?!) doesn't really inspire anyone to feel empowered.

amanda said...

I think you're absolutely right, and thank you for saying so. "Blame the one with the deep pockets" is an all-too-common refrain these days. If you don't want to eat something that's in a packaged food, don't eat it. If you can't/won't/don't want to consume sugar or the calories in a piece of pizza, don't eat things requiring sugar or pizza. A lot of the chemicalization of our food supply comes from people wanting substitutes for things. Take responsibility for your needs and wants and flat out avoid things you can't/won't eat. And if you do want that bag of Oreos? Own it, and don't blame Nabisco for your health woes.

Diane said...

Ummm.....not sure about this. I agree in principle, and dislike the simplistic maneuver of declaring any particular thing "evil." - but your argument assumes choice. Many rural areas have limited selections available at markets, unless you want to grow your own food. And let's not even talk about institutional food like school cafeterias. Do you think kids have an option to say, "no Sysko for me thank you very much."?

So - good piece. It makes you think. But I'm not sure an individual consumer has that much power. The only way I have seen this implemented effectively is to ADD an additional product for a small segment of the population (5 ice cream?), not to change much or anything core for the vast majority of purchasers.

amanda said...

@Diane - The choice *is* there. I live in a small rural town, with a small neighborhood market. If we don't want to travel 30 miles to a larger chain grocery (or Walmart, *shudder*) we shop there. There are plenty of basic food ingredients available if one wants to avoid additives and processing. And if parents want their kids to avoid processed foods in school cafeterias, make them a lunch. If older kids make up their own minds about avoiding school lunches, they can make and take too. There are always choices. The right choice - for an individual, not saying that one is *right* for all - is often not the easy choice, but it is still a choice. Saying there is no choice when there is only one easy choice is a cop-out.

Kris said...

Dan! You're right: food companies are not inherently evil. Still, we have to keep in mind that they're not benevolent, either. Food corporations - all corporations, for that matter - exist to make a profit. If we go into supermarkets with that in the back of our minds, I think it will make us more critical shoppers, and less susceptible to advertising.

Thought-provoking post, man.

Stuart Carter said...

Amber has hit the nail on the head. The big food companies have crammed cheaper and cheaper ingredients into things in the name of cost control, without ever taking account of whether or not it is actually good for you. HFCS is the reason why I started making my own jams, jellies, conserves and pickles, and led to my buying a hot water bath and pressure canner - its ubiquity in everything is worrying, as are the severe long term health problems of eating so much of the darn stuff.

What it comes down to is a phrase in computer networking (my day job!).

"Cheap. Fast. Good. Choose any two."

Anonymous said...

Too simple.
Shall we forget the changes to lobbying rules for corporations? No harm there?

Advertising/deception eg tobacco?

Resistance to nutrition info at fast food, though consumers asking?

Scrutiny is required.

Nice current example is GMO. Without getting into the GMO debate, let's assume food companies will produce nonGMO if consumers desire it. OK, let's label all GMO so we can choose. Not too much interest in that from food companies. There's a reason for that, deferral/avoidance of negative sales impact. So nonGMO labeling will be the push.

Why does personal responsibility/empowerment come with this gag order? Not for me, thanks.

bashtree said...

I think you're right, Dan. Food companies are just that - companies. I see it as basic supply and demand. There is a demand for what they offer, so it is supplied. Sure, advertising and whatnot has an impact, but advertising doesn't force me to buy anything.

You've blogged here what I have been saying to my computer screen ever since I first came across the 'big food is evil' notion. Right on.

Anonymous said...

I couldnt agree more. The problem here extends well beyond food companies. The Walmart argument is the same. In the end, though, these entities are merely a reflection of society. To me,the 'Big Lie' is that something is being perpetrated on us, when we are perpetrating it upon ourselves!

Increasingly, we settle further and further into a state of adolesence as a society, expecting someone to take care of us. Thus we expect corporations to be "benevolent" and take care of our kids and watch out for us. The government, in a further extension of that reflection, begins to speak of corporations in the same language.

But if we dont want ammonia-filled cheeseburgers, or double-sized dicount boxes of Count Chocula, we can accmplish this tomorrow by simply choosing something else. We the people hold ALL the power.

I wonder though if the government would then start a TARP program for failing fast food companies.... ;-)

Steve said...

Dan, I for one agree with you 100%. We make our own choices every day, and if we don't like the results, we are free to choose again, to make a different choice. By our choices we create the reality of our lives and our world, both individually and as a society. It's time to stop whining and take personal responsibility for our choices if we wish for things to be different. As the comic strip character Pogo says, "We have met the enemy, and they is us."
PS: The soft drink and fast food industries would have gone out of business 15 years ago, or at least radically changed their product offerings if they had to depend on my business.

Jim Hohl said...

Dan, interesting post and I agree with you. We as a society do tend to put the blame elsewhere for the bad things that "happen to us" - of course, not so often for the good things, which are entirely our doing :-).

This is reflected on a smaller scale in our daily lives where we tend to find excuses for almost everything - late because of the train, not because I didn't leave on time; in debt because my landlord raised my rent, not because I had to have that new car. By realizing like Steve said that every moment is a choice, we can stop placing blame and finding excuses, and then move forward with our lives in so many ways.

By the way, where you said "emasculating", I'm sure you meant "disempowering". Not sure many women (or even this gay man) necessarily worry about being "emasculated".

ConsciouslyFrugal said...

I'm afraid I have to chime in with Amber and Tim here. But I understand where you're coming from--we ALL do this (yes! I mean that. ALL of us do it!)--assume our personal experience is universal truth. It's not. Nor is any complex situation simply a matter of black and white. Big Ag created a market--they didn't respond to one (a la the cultivation of desire). We continue to support it, much to our detriment. Simplistic answers are fabulous, but they often relieve us of a greater responsibility to our communities.

You may have the education, intelligence and ability to think critically when it comes to these complex issues and boil it down to a matter of choice. Not everyone has those skills. I have seen people with masters degrees give dying diabetic family members burgers & fries while in the hospital because "it's not sugary, so it's fine."

There has been a massive amount of intentional misinformation out there to confuse consumers. One day, eggs will kill you. The next day, eggs will heal you. Blah, blah, blah.

Genetically modified foods have been introduced into our grocery aisles without sufficient, long term testing (the first GMO food was introduced after 14 days. I read the study. It was far from comprehensive). Consumers have become the greatest lab experiment of all time. Um, that's evil. If vast amounts of information are being withheld, what choice do we actually have? You need information to make good choices. We don't have all the information, and that is due to an intentional, calculated effort by Big Ag. Hello, evil.

Also, we need to stop acting tough and pretending like advertisments don't affect us. Of course they do. Does that make us powerless? Of course not. But if we walk around pretending that being bombarded by sugar awesomeness and playgrounds at McDonalds aren't affecting us and our kids, we're being dishonest.

I certainly agree with your assertion that we are not powerless and that we need to take the reigns and make better choices and do all we can to make these Big Ag fools die of atrophy. But it's extremely arrogant and presumptuous to ask the woman who is working 2 manual labor jobs for minimum wage to take the bus 20 miles to a decent grocery store so that she can fix healthful meals for her kids who can't play outside because of the drive by shootings (yes, I work in the Los Angeles area). Some choices are tougher than others and how dare we decide what's an appropriate level of difficulty for someone who lives on the margins.

The intelligent, relatively affluent person's answer is frequently "it's about choice." How about, "it's about community?" How about realizing that we don't all have the same deck of cards in this game and we need to help each other out? How about holding government responsible for mismanaging our tax dollars through Farm Bill appropriations? How about addressing complex issues with multi-layered solutions that require more of us than a hyper-individualized outlook?

Christine said...

As I was reading your very interesting post I was thinking 1) yes, of course companies are in business to make money, and yes of course no one puts a gun to my head and forces me to buy cookies, I don't need to be told that, and 2) this is too simple - what about government's role in subsidizing that corn product? what about regulations that favor commodity agriculture over small farms? and 3) an immigrant woman with several kids, two jobs and no car would not be able to relate to this at all, even if she had time to read it, and 4) maybe food bloggers just preach to the choir.

Then, before I could organize my thoughts into a response, "Consciously Frugal" came through and wrote it for me!

But you write about important issues, so I would encourage you to research and write about the history of government food subsidies and regulations, and what might happen economically if those subsidies were reduced and regulations changed. And perhaps a deeper discussion of the food economy and experiences of people at different socioeconomic points would be helpful for those of us who find this post a bit too simplified.

Holly said...

You've already gotten some great comments so I don't have much to add except my vote: you've got a valid point but it isn't quite that simple. I think we're too ready to blame someone in our country but I also think government has historically been to quick to let food companies "self regulate" and leave important information off the table. If I knew McDonalds was serving New Leaf potatoes I certainly would NOT have allowed my family to eat them in our occassional patronage of the golden arches. However, I didn't find out until over a year after they discontinued it. It's that kind of thing that companies should have to answer for.

Daniel said...

I'm really happy to see the civil discussion that's developing here. Thanks to everyone for your input and thoughts.

I will say, however, that the bulk of the objections to this post share a minor flaw in logic. This is not to say that those commenters who disagree with me are wrong! After all, this post is supposed to start conversations, not kill them off. :)

I'll explain my thoughts in more detail them in a forthcoming post that will run on Saturday morning (US east coast time). Check back this weekend and share your reactions!

ConsciouslyFrugal said...

I'm very curious as to what you view to be the "minor flaw in logic." This will be interesting!

Stacy said...

This is such a complicated subject, and I am on the fence, but I enjoyed reading your thoughts and other peoples comments. I am interested to see how this all plays out.

J.N. Urbanski said...

I agree with Consciously Frugal and Amber. I've been talking about consumer power for a long time, but I often forget people who can't afford to change their dietary habits and are forced to eat stuff like the soup that now has corn syrup in it. I also will never eat soy again after watching Food Inc, but it's in EVERYTHING from veggie burgers to vitamins. Europe outlawed GMO soy a long time ago.
We have a long way to go before America's food is no longer washed in clorox and drenched in pesticides.

Bernie said...

Evil is too strong but they do drive Mom & Pop restaurants out of business.

Maureen said...

Great discussion! I will just add a big DITTO to what Amber and Consciously Frugal have already said (and much more eloquently than I could have)....and look forward to future conversations on the subject.

logical and healthy said...

This post is an example of flawed logic. That you have the freedom of choice simply is not true. When MSG is in 80% of food products sold in the United States, what kind of choice is that? And when profits from soda are 90% and profits from vegetables 10%, what kind of choice is that? Using your fellow man to help drive profits at the cost of healthcare, that is the flawed logic. Your post simply plays a devils advocate, but there is no logic coming from you.

Daniel said...

Logical, I think you've missed the central point of this post.

If you believe you have no freedom of choice and you insist on finding only examples to prove you have no freedom of choice.... *you will not have freedom of choice.* Do you see? Your "logic" is self-fulfilling.