It’s easy to get bogged down thinking about all this American eating stuff. Good food is great and all, but there are just so many factors working against it. How do you get past a multibillion-dollar monster? Or a government that feeds it? Or a culture that worships it?
Not by taking it head on. The idea that people can be convinced to change their ways seems illogical. Big Food is so masterfully influential that it’s scrambled our biological programming. (Why else would we be addicted to food that’s killing us?) A counterargument – no matter how sound – could never undo the subliminal damage. And despite the support of philanthropic organizations, no resources we could amass would ever match the strength of the opposition’s.
It’s a David and Goliath situation, but I’d rather not wait for a miracle. Nor do I like the idea of beating Big Food at its own game – many have tried winning the hearts and minds of our massive masses, but it hasn’t really worked yet. No – if any real change is to be made, we should drop the blind optimism and play the hand we’ve been dealt. If I were to take on the monster, I’d use neither force nor volume. I’d use jujutsu.
Jujutsu – I’m now learning – is a soft Japanese martial art. It’s different from hard systems like karate and taekwando in that it’s not about how hard you can kick or how strong your punch is. Instead, fluidity is the weapon: by absorbing – rather than matching – blows, jujutsu turns an opponent’s momentum against them. Force literally becomes weakness.
Keep going with me. If we were to take on Big Food with this approach (food-jutsu?) our next step would just be to keep our eyes open. After all, they’ve certainly been throwing all the punches so far… we’d just need to observe where their momentum takes them. What does their attack rely on? What do they leave exposed?
It’s not an easy answer, but a few articles in the New York Times this week bring up an interesting possibility. In “Colorless Food? We Blanch”, Gardiner Harris discusses how heavily the processed food industry relies on something seemingly trivial: artificial coloring. It was surprising – food coloring didn’t strike me as one of the industry’s biggest dangers. Things like brain-warping advertising come to mind, or addictive amounts of sugar and fat, or unbeatable (and unethical) price points. But food coloring? Is it even bad for you?
Actually no, at least not according to a recent panel convened by the FDA. Still, the fact that the current dyes have been labeled safe doesn’t mean they’re any less threatening. Think about Big Food’s attack. In effort to increase profits, their goal is to make food as cheaply and with as long a shelf life as possible – remarkably achievable with only a handful of ingredients. The problem is that humans are programmed to gravitate towards food that’s visually appealing. And when your only ingredients are corn, petroleum, and salt, whatever you make is going to look pretty bland.
Of course, that’s where dyes come in. Consider the Cheeto. A recent Cornell study found that without their neon orange tint, Cheetos were found “bland” and “[not] much fun to eat”. What if all foods were similarly unmasked? Would kids demand fruit snacks if they looked like dried glue? Would they prefer colorless soda to vibrant carrot juice? Maybe not.
Food-jutsu. Big Food’s greasy punches may be relentless, but their attack hinges on something much more vulnerable. A government ban on these dyes would clearly be the most debilitative counter. It would force manufacturers to either switch to less-palatable, colorless alternatives (remember Crystal Pepsi?) or use shorter-lasting, natural sources for color. Both would be huge changes.
Discouragingly though, that FDA verdict means that a blanket ban isn’t going to happen any time soon. But all’s certainly not lost. Instead of taking artificial dyes from Big Food’s arsenal, why not just add them to ours? To a kid, Fruit Loops might not be as thrilling next to neon blue oatmeal. Restaurants could even charge for turning ice water bright pink. Acquiescing to this day-glow aesthetic would be a comparatively safe concession in order to avoid processed food’s effect on palate and health.
They’re not perfect solutions, but they’re more realistic ones. With the state of today’s eating culture, purely natural food just can’t compete with the fantastic allure of processing. In the future, calculated strikes at keystones like artificial dyes may help to level the playing field. Until then, any approach that respects the full strength of the opposition is worth trying.