Chronicles of Foodland: A Stranger in Foodland

November 4, 2009 in Diabetes Management, Food Economics, Foodland, Psychology of Food, Shelf Life by Victor Bunderson

Coming to Notice Foodland
Many glimpses of the existence of Foodland passed before my inattentive eyes over several decades of life, but despite its daily importance to a healthy and happy life, I willfully, even blissfully ignored its existence. But after my marriage to Joyce, “Dr. Grandma”, in May of 2000, it became inevitable that my blissful ignorance could not continue.  Step by step, she began to change our kitchen into what we would now call “a Mediterranean kitchen” – one where delicious healthy dishes were created with an emphasis on whole grains, whole fruits, and whole vegetables.  These, along with the sparing use of meats, were prepared to taste great, never like “health food”, which most normal people would resist.

The offerings of this kitchen were great, but an attitude adjustment was coming along with it, slowly, gently. We would fearlessly invade the supermarkets and restaurants of Foodland, but more intelligently, and with greater discrimination, especially after my diagnosis with Type II Diabetes. We became more discriminating shoppers as we ventured into the commercial marvels of Foodland, rejecting some establishments entirely, selecting pieces here and there from others, and reveling in a few that really “got it”.  I was learning how to get by the profit-motivated hype of Foodland and eat judiciously and with good food economics. Despite my gradual eye-opening to Foodland and how to deal with it, an abrupt “baptism” of sorts into Foodland, in all its glory, took place in October, 2000. It happened when I walked with Joyce into the grand ballroom housing the Food Exposition of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) in Denver.

No stranger to conferences, I have attended a lot of them. Some exhibit halls for computers in education, computer graphics, educational psychology, and educational testing and statistics were pretty impressive. But the ADA conference was a whole new adventure. Row after row of booths included some small middle-of-the-row booths for little food vendors or service groups with literature. Other booths were extravaganzas! These were placed on choice corner locations – some large enough to have four corners of their own.  My old familiar conferences sometimes had big exhibit areas, but this was a glimpse into the enormous economic, gustatory, olfactory, and endorphin-stimulating world of carefully crafted and extravagantly marketed food products.

And how tasty the foods were! (Mostly, and you could discretely dispose of leftovers of those that weren’t in conveniently placed trash containers). Joyce had to caution me repeatedly about just eating a tiny bit of each free sample, and skipping most, because I would become gorged after just one row at the rate I was devouring the samples.

I remember one of the big corner exhibits.  Dietitians were lined up waiting for something, and were going away with a big, bulging yellow bag.  The exhibit was for something called Splenda.  We wanted to get our yellow bags too.  While standing in line, Joyce explained to me that not all foods served in this exhibit hall were actually made of out of real foods that grow in nature.  Some sweeteners, for example, are purely chemical. Splenda, however, claims its processing starts with regular sugar. Joyce explained to me that through serious chemical processing, a monomer of sugar was produced that fits perfectly into the sweetness receptors on the tongue. Despite its intense sweetness, the sugar-like molecule, with just a twist in one part in the opposite direction to real sugar, is not digested as it passes through.  Thus Splenda deserves it’s zero calorie designation.  (Later, Spenda became my buddy for a time after I was diagnosed with type II diabetes, but that story can wait.)

It was not just excellent carry-bags we got as free samples, but drink containers, pens, flashlights, and even balsa airplanes for most of the grandkids.  The food samples and their variety were the center of it all, of course, and never have I seen, smelled, tasted, and experienced such a variety of foods, real and artificial, as at this, my first ADA conference – a real Food Festival!  Needless to say, I like to go to them still.

Food Processing, Nutrition vs. Shelf Live, Economics  & Business of Foods, Psychology of Food Consumption, and other disturbances
– these are some aspects of Foodland which impressed themselves upon this stranger in foodland.  Some foods are real, whole, and natural, but they have a short shelf life and are thus not so profitable.  Bubble a little hydrogen into them while they are under pressure: saturate that fat. Look, it will have a much longer shelf life and be more profitable.  Process that government-subsidized corn and get an inexpensive high fructose corn syrup that has a terrific shelf life, then find out -- into how many foods can you sell this highly processed and profitable product? Do research on what tastes are super-palatable for most, and franchise, package, and mass-market those foods.  What is the psychology of food choice?  Find out what is simultaneously tasty and cheap to make, with a long shelf life.  Advertise it and sell the heck out of it.  While do people deny evidence and stick fiercely to unhealthy choices and habits?  Who cares?  Sell them what they crave, and stoke the craving through marketing and through research into mixtures of processed ingredients that will increase the craving.

These are some observations I started in earnest to file away that day.  That day in the Festival in Foodland I became entranced, a mixture of delight and anger, at some of the wondrous and remarkable phenomena, great and not-so-great, that even a stranger in Foodland may observe and wander about.

Wandering in Foodland