Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Argument for Spending More on Food

In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, food anthropologist Michael Pollan claims modern Americans spend nearly 5% of our income on what we eat. While this might seem like a lot, consider this: we used to cough up 10%.

For people like me, that 5% difference initially seems like a good thing. It’s helped me pay off school loans, squirrel funds away for a house, and stop living paycheck to paycheck. I can bank hundreds of dollars a month because I buy generic eggs at $1.99 per dozen, rather than the cage-free, brown-ish ones for $3.50.

But what about the long run? Will that same cheap food hurt my health? Does “cage-free” merit an extra $1.51? Will the money I save on inexpensive eggs eventually go toward doctors and drugs needed to ward off the effects of those eggs?

These are complicated questions, and with the economy beating Americans to a bloody pulp, paying more for quality groceries may seem ludicrous, not to mention antithetical to CHG’s entire mission. Of course, expense doesn’t necessarily connote excellence, either. It’s never a given that pricier food automatically means tastier, more nutritious, or more humanely raised food. Still, assuming that cost often coincides with quality, there are advantages to spending more on groceries that can’t be denied.

Consider the following points, then. Admittedly, they include sweeping generalizations, and holes can be poked ad nauseum, but I think the overall arguments are worth examining. Please, feel free to comment.

In many cases, more expensive food is healthier food.

When it comes to dairy, meat, and in-season produce – a.k.a. food found around the perimeter of the supermarket - the pricier options are often those made organically, locally, antibiotic-free, or with other higher standards in mind. Sure, these definitions are open to LOTS of interpretation, but it’s largely accepted the fancier food is healthier than the 8-for-$1 oranges shipped in from Paraguay. Often, their development isn’t rushed for profit’s sake, and there are fewer chemicals to be found both in and out.

Of course, the same holds true for packaged goods. Next time you hit Pathmark (or Food Lion or Kroger’s), take a look at some labels. Generally (very generally) speaking, more expensive items will have fresher ingredients with fewer additives, while cheaper items have more processed ingredients, including 17,000 different kinds of sugar (fructose, corn syrup, etc.). Why? Well, on the whole, chemicals are easier to create and preserve than real food, meaning production and packaging are less expensive. Need proof? Check cheese, frozen entrees, or yogurt. For example:
  • Currently, a 6-oz. container of Ronnybrook Strawberry Yogurt is going for about $0.27/oz on Fresh Direct. Its ingredients are as follows: pasteurized, unhomogenized whole milk, strawberries, sugar, nonfat dry milk, pectin, natural flavors, citric acid, and imported live cultures.
  • At the same time, Dannon La Crème Strawberry Yogurts are about $0.17/oz, but they contain the following: cultured grade A milk and cream, sugar, fructose syrup, strawberry puree, fructose, corn starch, kosher gelatin, natural flavor, malic acid, carmine and annatto extract, active yogurt cultures.
It almost makes sense that YoPlait, Dannon, and Breyers construct their products out of highly processed yogurt-like compounds rather than, say, yogurt. It makes it more affordable and thus, more marketable. However, it may not be better for our bodies.

Higher-priced food is often better-tasting.

This relates again to the amount of actual food in our food. A $4 loaf of cinnamon raisin bread from the farmers market may go bad in four days, but it’s DELICIOUS and lacks the distinct chemical overtones of store-bought bread, as well as the mile-long list of preservatives. While this difference is apparent all around the supermarket, it holds especially true for fresh foods, like produce, dairy, and of course, meat.

Speaking of meat: we’ve all sampled the poultry-esque flavor of McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets at some point or other. For the price, you get a lot of filling, vaguely edible niblets. But have you ever had pork from a butcher? Or an honest-to-god, line-caught piece of fish? Or chicken that didn’t come from Tyson? I have. The difference in flavor is world-changing, especially when a dish is prepared well.

Look, we do what we can with what we have. And sometimes, the results are pretty damn good. But there’s no denying that cheap, chemical-laden food products often taste like … well, nothing. For the sake of flavor, blowing a few more bucks to procure a decent chicken might be worth the money.

Some costlier foods guarantee better treatment of animals and more respect for nature.

Often, heftier price tags come with promises of better living conditions for cattle, chickens, and pigs. But why should you cough up extra dough for something that’s going to be killed anyway?

Simply, it’s probably healthier and definitely more humane. You don’t have to be a hemp-crazy hacky sacker to acknowledge that factory farms like CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) are less than ideal housing situations for soon-to-be butchered animals. Filthy and crowded, they promote disease and take short-cuts to produce in-demand meat on a faster basis. (While we’re on the subject, growing the same crops on the same land year after year can’t be particularly great for the ecosystem, either.)

Spending a few more pennies for farm-raised animals or local produce can help by promoting sustainable agriculture, along with open spaces for grazing. Beware, though, because you often have to look beyond the labels. Many “free-range” chickens don’t live on idyllic grasslands, but instead, in overcrowded coops with limited access to a tiny patch of barren, rarely-used soil. Still, research and careful label-reading can ensure your food originates from carefully-tended, pro-environment farmlands. And that? Deserves a few bucks.

Good food can make it feel like you’re spoiling yourself without blowing the bank.

A blogger named Scordo put this best in a January 9th post about his parents: “Eating well provides my parents with their own luxury lifestyle at a fraction of the price of most luxury goods.”

This particular point may apply more to foodies, but I think it’s valid enough to include. If you value and love food as much as I do, a $10 block of artisanal cheese is way, way better than a cashmere sweater or Coach bag. It costs $100 less, too.


There are more points to make here, but I think health, taste, environmental impact, and luxury are the most important four. And while CHG will continue to push less-expensive, well-cooked food, the arguments are solid food for thought.

Readers, what do you think? The floor is open.

(Photos courtesy of National Post and Shred Something.)


Post a Comment

Related Post