1) Cooking time for regular oatmeal: 4-5 minutes.
2) Cooking time for "quick oats" (essentially regular oats cut up into slightly smaller pieces): 2-3 minutes.
3) Cooking time for instant oats, which are pre-flavored, have the texture and consistency of glue and cost as much as 3-4 times per serving as regular oats: 1-2 minutes.
After reading the information above, can you tell me why, as a society, we manufacture and sell "foods" like instant oats?
They're a textbook example of a second-order food. They cost more--up to 42c per serving, vs. 9-10c for generic oats and 13-14c for branded oats. And, arguably, they taste worse.
Are we really that busy? And is it a good use of society's collective time to save two minutes at the cost of triple the money? (Um, especially when there's a solid chance the average person is likely to waste those minutes many times over by watching TV or obsessively checking email?)
Why do I bring this up? Well, the other day my wife and I were having a deep conversation on the value proposition of various types of oats (hey, the fun never stops here at Casual Kitchen), and the conversation climaxed with yet another of Laura's pithy sayings:
"You know, instant oats are a metaphor for everything that's wrong with our civilization."
I think she might be right. So, I'll ask it again: Why do foods like this exist?
Here's the short answer: they exist because it's a free country. When you live in a free country, you'll find many of the foods on your grocery store shelves aren't all that tasty, healthy or even tolerable. Some of them cost appalling amounts of money and will kill you if eaten to excess. And don't try to tell me you don't have your own horrendously unhealthy food that's your guilty pleasure (mine is Cool Ranch Doritos).
The thing is, these foods don't exist to please you, they exist for the people who buy and sell them.
In a free society, neither you nor the government gets to decide what foods stores can sell. Nobody gets to tell people what they can or cannot buy. If people want to buy Fruit Roll-Ups, chlorinated pre-made mixed salads, Velveeta, Marshmallow Fluff, ranch dressing or mayonnaise, it's their right.
Yep, that brief list of vile foods I just quoted (and listed in order of increasing vileness in a subtle example of my subclinical OCD) is part and parcel of our free society. Hey, freedom ain't always pretty.
Back to oatmeal. Look, if you can get past the taste and texture, regular "old-fashioned" oatmeal is perhaps the easiest and most laughably cheap breakfast out there. I can't stand oatmeal in any form, but I make it nearly every morning for Laura. It keeps her full for hours, costs pennies, and helps manage her above-average cholesterol. Some might even consider it evidence that I'm a halfway decent husband.
But think about it: if the food industry had its wits about it, it should be charging more for regular oats. Call them "unprocessed oats," promote their all-natural taste and texture, tout the health benefits and the high fiber levels--and then charge triple the price. They could make humble oatmeal into yet another aspirational good, and millions of people would happily pay up for it!
I can hear the ad now, with a testimonial spoken by an earnest-looking, blonde, thirty-something actress: "My parents and I ate instant oats, but I think it's worth it for my family--and especially for my kids--to experience the superior taste, quality and health benefits of natural, unprocessed oats."
Sadly, this kind of marketing is also part and parcel of a free society, as are consumers who mindlessly internalize and obey said marketing. And heck, it was so easy to come up with that ad copy that it makes me wonder why I spent all those years working on Wall Street.
But here's the bottom line. Free economic systems, just like free societies, produce both traps and opportunities. Casual Kitchen readers know this. They know, for example, that there are pricing idiosyncrasies ripe for the taking throughout the food industry (a perfect example would be to eat plain oatmeal at pennies a serving while skipping the $5 box of tooth-achingly sweet cereal). CK readers also know that instant oats are just another hilarious example of a second-order food, with extra branding and processing costs that they do not need to pay.
It can surprisingly easy to beat the free-market food industry at its own game, but you have to be awake and aware. You must keep your mind open to creative ideas and solutions, and you must avoid whining and giving your power away to the evil food industry. Remember, freedom means we are empowered to make our own choices.
Let me add a final tangent to this oddly tangent-laden post: by far the vilest breakfast food I've eaten in my life was a big bowl of Čokolino (pronounced Choh coh LEE no) that I tried in Slovenia back in 2008. The taste and texture were indescribable--the best I can say is it tasted like a foamy and slightly rancid protein shake.
Was this yet another free-market food? Another metaphor for the decline of society? Well, no, not exactly. This "food" was a relic from the former Yugoslavia, back when it was under Tito's dictatorship!
I guess Winston Churchill was right when he said democracies produce the worst food, except for all the other forms of government.
Readers, what processed foods really turn your stomach? Would you ban them (warning: trick question) if you had the power to?
Why Do Products Go On Sale?
Who Really Holds the Power in Our Food Industry?
Survivor Bias: Why "Big Food" Isn't Quite As Evil As You Think It Is
Let Them Eat Cake! Thoughts About Wealth, Power and the Food Industry
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