The Quest For Good Food in America

The human desire for food and drink is a very primal one. Except possibly for sex, nothing seems to appeal to the human brain more than a good meal. It’s impact can be measured in many ways. For instance the Chinese greet one another not usually with “How are you feeling?” but a phrase that translates to “How have you eaten?” While the French seem to have a way of preferring the fancy over the practical, it’s even more where their meals are concerned. There’s a saying, “Other folk eat to live while the French live to eat,” and most will insist on finely prepared food, and take their time to enjoy it. When one friend of mine offered someone from France a glass of water, he declined, saying water was for bathing or washing things, not drinking.


For Americans, some of our food is a reflection of our simpler days as a mostly small town and farm country. But mostly it’s a product of our days of the Industrial Revolution. Probably nothing reflects this more than the hot dog. It’s made from parts of the pig that would be given to the family dog or cat on a farm. And yet people enjoy them, knowing what it is but preferring not to thing about it. And the way we eat is a product of it, people gulping down their meals at lunch so they won’t be late going back to work. For instance, even though carbonated soft drinks were first sold as an alternative to alcoholic beverages, they were soon marketed as something to help ease a troubled tummy from eating too fast, the name for “Pepsi” coming from “dyspepsia,” a term for indigestion. Fast-food might have had it’s origins in England with fish and chips shops, but once America came out of the Depression and WW2 and into the automobile, places like McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken began offering quick food for low prices. While hardly gourmet meals, for a man or woman of working and middle class backgrounds it’s lots of delicious food just minutes away.

But of course there’s a catch. There are concerns that some of these franchises are becoming a little too big, crowding out traditional local fare, about the workers being poorly paid, and the occasional horror story about food or the equipment contaminated by malice or neglect. Of the supermarket, there are concerns about some local brands being squeezed out of business by major ones, making what’s become a small part of it’s culture disappear. But the most obvious one: it seems the modern American diet isn’t quite the best thing for us as human beings.

In caveman times, obesity was practically unknown, or at least rare, as people had to hunt and gather for the food of their tribe. More often than not, they couldn’t be choosy and if it was edible, it was eaten (which might explain how a few foods like oysters became foods to begin with). And the tribe’s well being was at the mercy of a land that at times could be stingy and uncaring as drought meant the animals and plants they depended on would die. Finally someone had the idea of planting wheat. But at first they didn’t depend on these patches of grains. They were just a small part of their diet while they continued to hunt. But then people began living off of their wheat fields, the grains baked into bread, and the meat of captive animals, sometimes fed with surplus grain or just grazing in fenced fields. But while people could irrigate fields from water from streams miles away or underground wells, there was still the risk of famine from either drought or blight from plant diseases wiping out almost everything of one particular plant. It wasn’t until the practice of crop rotation and a greater variety of foodstuffs planted, some from other lands, that Europe would finally be free of the threat of famine by nature, starvation at times in the 20th century such as Stalin’s Ukraine and the Warsaw Ghetto having man-made causes.

The obvious problem with food always available in large quantities, that some people will over-indulge, especially if one’s job doesn’t involve a great deal of physical labor. If one is a field hand on a farm or a laborer hauling things in a factory or depot, chances are they’re burning a lot of calories. Someone in an office, not so much. It’s also common knowledge that fast food isn’t exactly the most nutritious food available, “Too much KFC will make you F-A-T,” one comedian mused. So over time, Americans have started been passing the fast food place a little more often. There’s also that red meat is higher in saturated fat than fish and poultry. So also over time, Americans have been eating less red meat, and more chicken, turkey, and fish. There’s a good deal of food that markets itself as low calorie, fat-free, sugar free, etc. And of course, there’s dieting. Diet books are good sellers, and diet pills are very much in demand.

Still, obesity remains a bigger problem in American than other countries. Perhaps we’re not trying hard enough. Or maybe there’s something else.

One problem with dieting is the way many people do it. They starve themselves by eating very little, and once they’ve achieved their weight-loss goal go back to the way their were eating before. Called “Yo-yo dieting,” this can be worse than not dieting in the first place as without exercise, weight lost can be both fat and muscle while weight gained can be mainly fat. Fortunately, more people are trying to avoid this by avoiding crash diets and instead dieting for the long haul, making goals of losing a few pounds a week or just one a week, and simply cutting back rather than eliminating.

But some feel this isn’t quite enough. They say it’s not enough to just cutting back on trips to McDonalds, not enough to just have less sugary soda and replace them with diet drinks.

That a lot of sugary soda isn’t good for you has been known for some time. Diet sodas that used saccharine as a sugar substitute, such as Tab, have been around for a while, but people complained of the aftertaste. Then in the early 80s, aspertaine, or “Nutrasweet” was developed, and products using it such as Diet Coke took off. But after a while, it was observed not everyone who was drinking the diet sodas was loosing weight. Some it seemed were still drinking sugary sodas or eating candy as much as before.

So what was wrong? Eventually came the hypothesis that while some people could keep on drinking one diet soda after another with no affects, for other people it was different. Their bodies reacted to the taste of these diet drinks by expecting sugar, and when they didn’t get it, they would cause the person to start craving it. And the person would reach for something sugary in response. Then there was food companies were using sugar less to sweetening their products, and using corn syrup as a less expensive sweetener. Critics charged this high-fructose substitute was even more addictive than sugar, causing people to crave more.

Some foods marketed as healthy have been charged as being less so. Years ago, a fat-substitute called “Olestra” came about, the intention being if people were craving fatty foods, then best to replace the fat with something digestible. But not everyone could handle it, some people developed greasy stools and other digestive problems. Eventually Olestra was renamed “Olean.” But there’s no sign the problems are any better. And some theorize they’re worse, and that these products are bad for everyone, not just some.

Granola snacks have been marketed as a healthy snack. But often those sold in stores are sweetened with sugar, even chocolate. One might as well reach for the M and Ms. Modern preservatives have also come under the microscope. If it’s not good for microbes, is it good for people? Some are calling for their complete ban. Trouble is without them, it becomes harder to keep food good for long without refrigeration. But does one want to eat a hamburger that’s been sitting around at room temperature for ten years? Obviously, some kind of balance is needed here.

In recent years, gluten-free diets have been popularized, some people believing they are allergic to the wheat protein. And so a number of products promising to be gluten-free have been marketed. But these diets have been criticized. Most of the critics state that most of the people claiming to be allergic really aren’t. But there’s another theory coming out that it’s not just gluten that’s the problem, but wheat itself. The human body is not a true omnivore, they state, but having evolved in the jungles of Africa was meant to digest a diet of meat and berries. While it could live off bread and other foods, it can’t do so very well, unable to use it for quick energy and will store it as fat, making the body sluggish. Going back to preservatives, the theory also states that if a food contains them, the body will not recognize it as food, and instead of energy convert it into sluggish fat.

An interesting theory, and perhaps it explains in part why humans didn’t transition to wheat farming so quickly. But the theory says nothing about nuts and roots, which cavemen would also have been eating. And of course there are so many foods in the American diet with wheat flour as an ingredient, getting away from it may prove next to impossible, unless one lives on a farm. And of course humans have been eating bread for thousands of years to the point it’s a part of our language, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and “Man does not live by bread alone.” Not an easy thing to overcome if it turns out there’s something to this theory.

Not unrelated to this are a couple other diet plans that have been marketed in recent years. One is the Bible diet, the one who came up with it stating unless a foodstuff was around in the days of the Bible, it wasn’t meant for people to consume. Related to the berry and meat theory is the Paleo diet, which argues people should eat only what was available for humans in the days before agriculture.

Then there are diets that ask people to eat mainly what people of their ethnic group have traditionally eaten. One Hawaiian doctor some years ago began advising patients of Polynesian heritage to avoid red meat and processed foods and instead east mostly fruit, fish, and other foods their ancestors would have. Perhaps it would make sense that over thousands of years their bodies might have adapted somewhat to certain foods. But at a time when people are sensitive to accusations of bias and prejudice, it can be a bit touchy to tell someone what he or she can or can eat based on their ancestry.

In short, loosing weight and feeling great seems it may not be as simple as just cutting back on the desserts.

Perhaps it’s the way Americans eat. One study, publicized some years ago on the “60 Minutes” TV news program, looked into why the French have lower rates of heart disease despite a diet high in some fatty foods such as cheese. The study came up with three major differences in the two diets. One, the main meal of the day in France is not dinner but lunch, people driving home from work, eating with the spouse, then heading back. Two, the French diet is low in processed foods already made and just need to be heated, but is mostly made from ingredients prepared in the kitchen by hand. Three, the French drink much more wine than Americans, particularly red wine which is thought to have chemicals than benefit the heart.

The result of the TV program was that sales of red wine went up twenty percent the following day. But nothing else really changed. In this day and age in America of thirty minute lunch breaks, and the media showing kitchen duty as hard work demeaning to women and with men as amateurs ending up setting the stove on fire, these factors in the American way of eating are unlikely to change. And with American seemingly either teetotalers with no taste for alcoholic drinks or people whom just can’t stop with one and end up getting drunk, the third probably will not either. In fact, one group of researchers began looking for a way to put the heart-benefiting chemicals from red wine in pill form, feeling the American diet would be unlikely to change long term as a result of the study.

So what to do? A few people have resigned themselves to what one person called “the second puberty,” that inevitably after the age of thirty the body will put on the pounds, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. Most however are not so fatalistic. Probably the best course of action is to not simply up and believe the latest thing they hear on the Internet, but to do their homework, read information about diets and theories of from multiple sources. And of course use common sense. If you like sweet things, maybe it’s best to reach for the raisins instead of chocolate sometimes. Maybe occasionally have cheese and crackers instead of potato chips every week.

Yours truly will still be eating a chicken sandwich on bread followed by an apple, washing it down with a diet coke.

Murray M. Lee