If you look at the ingredients of something like no-fat sour cream, you will find all sorts of things that have nothing to do with sour cream. You will find carrageenan and guar gum. These are parts of seaweed and beans. These are all substitutes for the fat in sour cream. It is not sour cream, and the law used to require you to say as much, but in 1973, the FDA — without going to Congress — simply repealed the imitation rule.
They did it at the behest of organizations like the American Heart Association, who thought that this would be a good thing. That the imitation rule was standing in the way of reengineering the food supply to make it contain less fat. Because no one would buy products called “imitation sour cream.” Would you buy imitation pasta? No. But “low-carb pasta” might sound more appealing.
Throwing out the imitation rule essentially allowed the food companies to do what they wanted with things like yogurt or sour cream — fundamentally change the identities of food without having to disclose it. We’ve moved from real foods like sour cream to edible food-like substances like low-fat sour cream that I refuse to call food. I think we should restore the imitation rule. We still have it for certain products.
If you process food, you then have a way to add value to it. For example, it’s very hard to make money selling oats. Very simple grain, really good for you. I can buy organic oats for .79 cents a pound. That’s a big bag of oats. But there’s little money in it for anyone. If you turn those oats into Cheerios, there’s a lot more money in it. Suddenly, you have your intellectual property, your little design, donut-shaped cereal, you have a convenience food, you just have to add milk, you don’t have to cook it anymore and you can charge about four or five dollars for much less than a pound of oats. So that’s a good business.
But in fact, over time, those Cheerios will turn into a commodity, too, and all the supermarkets will have their store brand and it will be hard to expand your market and grow. So what do you do? You go up the next level of processing, and you make honey nut Cheerios cereal bars. These new bars that have a layer of synthetic milk through the middle and the idea is that it’s a bowl of cereal that you could eat dry in the school bus or in the car.
Look at the ingredients on the label — it will say “made with real milk.” Check out what the real milk is. It’s ten ingredients that include some powdered milk and a lot of other strange things. But then you’re selling a few ounces of oats for a great many dollars. By the pound, you’ve taken that 79 cents, and my guess is you’re up to 10 or 20 dollars a pound for your oats because you’ve added all of this excitement and novelty.
And then you go up another level: Now you have these cereal straws. You take that oat material, and you extrude it through some machine that turns it into a straw and then you line that with that fake milk product. Then your children sip milk through it and you feel virtuous because you’re increasing their milk consumption. But at every step of the way, this food has gotten less nutritious. None of them are as healthy as that bowl of oatmeal, and the reason is, the more you process food, the less nutrients it has unless you add them back in. And even if you try to add them back in, you’re only going to add in the stuff you know is missing. There are other things you don’t know about because nutrition science doesn’t see them yet.
So that’s the capitalist imperative behind food. The fact is we would be better off with the oatmeal. The industry has many tricks to make sure we don’t eat the oatmeal. One is to market the wonders of these processed products. The other is to convince us we’re too busy to cook. And they’re very good at that. If you look at the picture of American life, family life on view in food commercials for television, you would think it’s this frenetic madhouse in every household in America, where the idea of cooking is absolutely inconceivable.
Yet, at the same time, there are images of people lounging in front of the television, doing their email and doing all sorts of other things, but there’s simply no time to cook. I think we’ve been sold this bill of goods that cooking is this heroic thing that only happens on special occasions.
Cook your own meals. Real food.
Don’t believe the hype.