A Question of Food Quality

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.

Related Posts:
The Problem with Government Food Safety Regulation
Make Your Diet Into a Flexible Tool
Brand Disloyalty
Ten Tips to Save Money on Spices and Seasonings

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Anonymous said...

I think there is no doubt that food quality was better in the 30's than today (minus what is organic today).

Food back then was probably close to what the USDA would certify as organic because the stuff wasn't mass produced, treated with chemicals, pesticides, etc. Food was produced locally (and yes, one didn't have the range of options offered today but in some ways, do you want grapes from some far away place in the winter, especially if they've been chemically treated to preserve them for you [do you really want to ingest chemicals?]).

There is a lot of literature that links food impurity to illnesses (long-term exposure). I will try to reply back with some information on that.

I notice a major difference in flavor when I eat organic vs. non-organic (in particular meats, raw foods [fruits, veggies]) and firmly believe this is because the organic stuff has been handled and treated less.

Daniel said...

Hi Anon, thanks for your comment.

I don't disagree with you per se, I just want to make sure we stay intellectually fair here--just because some foods available today are treated with chemicals isn't necessarily proof that food quality overall is worse today than in the past.

And food most definitely was treated with chemicals in the past. In the 1930s, my grandfather used to spread nicotine (!) on his crops in Ohio as an insecticide, and (as I state in the article) DDT went into wide agricultural use right after WWII.


Anonymous said...

Understood, though you are using a broad (but fair definition) of food quality. For me, #s3-6 on your list are most important (but I am very concerned about nutrition, health, getting back to basics).

Scary about the nicotine.

Was trying to draw a comparison pre-WW (pre-mass production).

Please do some research on the ingestion / absorption of chemicals and illness. Am curious what you find. Probably can be spun either way but I'd be interested how felt about it.

Sorry can't spend more time on this. Thanks for the reply.

NathalieS said...

I agree that the quality of food available improved greatly, if we make the right choices and eat seasonally.

I do think one important aspect we lost is all the knowledge about the food we eat. Not only about what is in season, but how it was produced and were it comes from at the most basic level. I'm not talking about how the food is processed commercially or how far it travelled, but simply how it's made. I grew up on a farm; my parents are beekeepers and garlic producers, and we had many other produce/livestock for our own consumption. I'm always astonished by how many people don't know how honey is made by the bees. Many friends/acquaintances are astonished that I can bake my own bread from scratch or grow my own herbs and lettuce in the city (balcony garden) or that I know how butter is made. Others find it irrelevant to know such things. It used to be common knowledge but sadly it's now mostly restricted to farmers and foodies.