What’s more important than food? Arguably, nothing. Yet we take it for granted—so much so that the majority of our supermarkets do not even contain real “food” in the first place. This goes for everything in a box, with a list of ingredients more than one, and even “fresh squeezed” juices.
Consider orange juice. The book, “Squeezed,” by Alissa Hamilton sheds light on this massive industry that has marketed its place into almost every home refrigerator. Almost two-thirds of American households buy orange juice. Consumers have bought, hook, line and sinker, the industry propaganda of “pure,” “fresh squeezed,” “natural,” etc., but in reality most don’t know what they are drinking.
Concentrate orange juice was invented in the 1940s for soldiers in WWII, and in that context it was a major breakthrough. However, orange juice is not real “juice.” This is hard for some people to hear, but it’s the truth.
Even brands such as Tropicana that promise their juice is pure, natural and fresh have been heated and processed, stripped of their volatile flavor-producing and nutritive compounds, held in tanks for up to a year and then engineered by perfume companies to taste fresh.
This is done to give the “juice” a shelf life of 60 days and year-round availability. The reality is that real juice would have a shelf life of no more than five to seven days.
Companies may claim “Florida Grown,” but the majority of processed orange juice now comes from Brazil. It should leave us feeling a little cheated.
Now, let’s apply this to “food” in general.
During the past 40 years, our food system has changed more than in the previous 40,000 years. We have gone from changing the types of fertilizers used to grow our food (natural à artificial), to changing the fundamental nature of the food that we are growing (natural à genetically modified organisms or GMO’s). Any form of processing denatures food. We use preservatives and flavor-enhancers as a means of convenience and economics, not nutrition.
Before this massive re-engineering of food, generally, we lived by the motto that if it tasted good it was good for us. Sure, sugar was produced by nature—but not refinement.
We’ve now become so good at tricking our taste buds that we can no longer tell good from bad. To make matters worse, our lives are so busy, we don’t have the time to dedicate ourselves to cooking fresh meals from whole foods. Thus, we convince ourselves that fresh foods cost more. The truth is, in the average packaged product, there is more cost in the packaging and marketing costs associated with the foodstuff than the “food” itself.
Production costs, or the raw commodity that is raised or grown, are typically called the “farm value” of food. The farm value for meats and dairy products is around 28 percent; for poultry, 41 percent; for cereals, 5 percent; for fresh fruits, 16 percent; and for fresh vegetables, 19 percent. As consumers demand more highly processed foods, or foods from distant places and ready-to-eat, the farm value falls as a percentage of the retail price.
Marketing costs rose 3.5 times faster than the farm value between 1990 and 1999. At 39 percent, labor is the largest portion of the cost of food, rising 56 percent during the 1990s.
Packaging costs comprise about 8 percent of total food costs, and they increased almost 40 percent in the 1990s. This increase is a function of the cost of paper and plastics, and the demand for more conveniently packaged foods. Package design changes, and packages that can be used directly for cooking and for eating or drinking increase the cost of packaging relative to the basic food.
Raw commodities (farm value), labor and packaging comprise 67 percent of the cost of food. The rest of the costs are in transportation, advertising, rent, profits, energy, business taxes, depreciation, interest payments, miscellaneous costs and repairs. These last types of costs have increased at about the rate of inflation and have not changed their share of the food dollar much over time.
So, let’s breakdown our retail food dollar:
• Foodstuff: 20 percent
• Labor: 39 percent
• Profits, Transportation and Marketing: 33 percent
• Packaging: 8 percent
So the large majority of what we eat is not food. It’s gasoline, taxes, advertising, profit to large corporations and the package in which it’s wrapped. It’s bad enough that the average meal travels over 1,500 miles to our plates, but the bigger picture is even worse.
Everyone knows farmers grow food, but before the recent surge in young farmers in the U.S., this obvious idea was becoming a relic of the past as large corporations continue to gobble up farm land. It may make business sense to have fewer farms producing more of our food, but it doesn’t make common sense.
The more homogenized our food system, the lower the quality of food. Food is not a piece of machinery that can be constructed as the sum of certain parts; farming is a living dynamic endeavor that takes intention and attention to detail. When the bottom line trumps nutritional value, we all lose.
For instance, the U.S. has the most expensive health-care system in the world and no where near the healthiest population. Many people comment that the obesity apparent in U.S. airports is far worse than in international airports. This is a direct result of our processed diets.
If the president would take his podium and communicate this to the American people, we would be much better off than forcing people to buy health insurance.
I suppose we can always hope.