It's a Slippery Slope

I like Mark Bittman. He tends to simplify recipes for the sake of simplification, but unlike many other folks in the food media world, he actually cooks. And I tend to agree with a lot of what he says about the politics of food and about our food culture in the United States. Over the last few years, however, Bittman has amped his rhetoric up to alarming levels, and I'm finding myself just a bit concerned that the flawed logic he's using to compare fast food restaurants to cigarette manufacturers might just gain some traction. 

The most recent bit of alarmism appeared in the op-ed pages of the New York Times Sunday edition. It's a well-written piece, and I found myself agreeing with the first two thirds of it. Bittman's point, at least initially, is that “fast food” is not actually less expensive than home-cooked meals. Even factoring in the cost per calorie (fast food tends to have a lot of calories, the argument goes, so even though a meal for a family of four might be more expensive than a home-cooked meal, it's so much higher in calories that the true cost is less) it's simple to make a less expensive, healthier meal at home than it is to hit the drive-thru.

Bittman also addresses the idea that cooking at home takes too much time. This is an argument that has always bothered me. Yes, cooking at home takes time. There are ways to reduce the time you actively spend cooking – crock pots, rice cookers, the judicious use of a microwave – but cooking is an investment of energy and time that you may not incur if you can stop off at McDonald's on the way home from work and pick up a few Big Macs. But how we spend time is a matter of priorities. I used to play golf, for example. These days when someone asks me if I've played recently, I say that I just don't have the time anymore. That's not entirely true. I could spend four hours defiling Audubon Golf Course on a Saturday if I wanted to. I don't because I'd rather spend that time in other ways.

The point is that if you want to cook, you can find the time. There are very few people for whom fast food is truly the only option. Even folks who live in areas without easy access to supermarkets can, with a little effort, secure stuff to cook. As Bittman points out, even if “cooking” means making a peanut butter sandwich, or heating up a can of beans to serve with rice, it's still a hell of a lot healthier than a Quarter Pounder.

Bittman has in the past suggested that we make efforts to increase the availability of fresh produce by subsidizing local farms instead of big agribusinesses. He's pointed out the problems with our policy towards ethanol, which encourages famers to grow inedible corn instead of food crops, thus raising the price of the food we eat. But Bittman loses his way when he moves onto other suggestions. Here's how he leads into his ultimate goal:

It’s not just about choice, however, and rational arguments go only so far, because money and access and time and skill are not the only considerations. The ubiquity, convenience and habit-forming appeal of hyperprocessed foods have largely drowned out the alternatives…

“It's not just about choice…” Bittman is laying the foundation here for a radical argument. He continues with the following:

Furthermore, the engineering behind hyperprocessed food makes it virtually addictive. A 2009 study by the Scripps Research Institute indicates that overconsumption of fast food “triggers addiction-like neuroaddictive responses” in the brain, making it harder to trigger the release of dopamine. In other words the more fast food we eat, the more we need to give us pleasure; thus the report suggests that the same mechanisms underlie drug addiction and obesity.

The Scripps Research Insitute might well be called the Institute For Pointing Out The Obvious. Yes, people like fast food because it tastes good. Yes, it's designed to taste good. It's designed to taste good in much the same way that my grandmother designed her fried chicken and milk gravy to taste good.  The idea that there is some sinister intent on the part of fast food restaurants to addict people to their food is absolutely essential to the point Bittman is trying to make: 

For 50 years, says David A. Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and author of  “The End of Overeating,” companies strove to create food that was “energy-dense, highly stimulating, and went down easy. They put it on every street corner and made it mobile, and they made it socially acceptable to eat anytime and anyplace.

It makes sense that restaurants would attempt to make food that people like. It makes sense that restaurants want people to be repeat customers. These are noncontroversial statements; the tone is what's troubling. Fast food companies “put it on every street corner”? Bittman and Kessler might as well be talking about crack. But again, this is just the set up. Here's the real payoff:

Obviously, in an atmosphere where any regulation is immediately labeled “nanny statism,” changing “the environment” is difficult. But we’ve done this before, with tobacco. The 1998 tobacco settlement limited cigarette marketing and forced manufacturers to finance anti-smoking campaigns — a negotiated change that led to an environmental one that in turn led to a cultural one, after which kids said to their parents, “I wish you didn’t smoke.” Smoking had to be converted from a cool habit into one practiced by pariahs….

Political action would mean agitating to limit the marketing of junk; forcing its makers to pay the true costs of production; recognizing that advertising for fast food is not the exercise of free speech but behavior manipulation of addictive substances; and making certain that real food is affordable and available to everyone.

How Bittman proposes to force the makers of “junk” to pay the “true costs of its production” are unclear. Presumably he means to tax fast food, and use the taxes to increase access to “real food” for everyone. Everyone would then, presumably, forgo consuming fast food and start cooking healthy meals at home. This is a noble sentiment, but the way Bittman proposes getting there is disturbing. Because I don't want Mark Bittman or anyone else deciding what I can eat, or when, or how. Bittman doesn't come right out and say he wants to ban fast food restaurants, or even that he wants to ban fast food restaurants from serving unhealthy food (the stuff he says is intentionally designed to be addictive and which directly causes the epidemic of obesity we face in the United States). But that's where his logic leads. 

My ox isn't being gored here, folks; I don't eat fast food, I don't drink soda, and I cook just about every day. But if we agree with the principle that the government should get into the business of limiting what we can and can't choose to eat on the basis of how good it tastes, or how “healthy” it is for us, then what's to stop Bittman or his ilk from deciding that whole milk is too high in fat? Why should butter be relatively inexpensive? It's not healthy in large doses, so why not make the producers of such an addictive substance pay the “true cost” of its consumption? In a recipe Bittman uses to illustrate how simply an inexpensive and healthy meal for a family of four can be prepared, he recommends using a couple of strips of bacon to flavor canned beans. If two strips are all a family of four needs for a healthy meal, why not make the cost of bacon higher to dissuade people from, say, serving two strips or more to a single person at breakfast? Don't you know it's bad for you? No? Well, thank heavens we have Mr. Bittman to tell us what we should eat, and how often, and how much we should pay for it. Because Mark Bittman doesn't trust us to make those choices ourselves. Indeed, in the first paragraph quoted above, he makes clear that he doesn't think we're actually making choices; those choices, he contends, are made for us by the evil fast food industry.

The idea that everyone should have access to fresh food is not something with which I'll argue. There are undoubtedly ways in which the government can encourage that, but casting fast food restaurants as evil, manipulative juggernauts whose addictive products render Americans incapable of making healthy choices is not the way to do it. The US does face an epidemic of obesity, and efforts to educate people on the benefits of eating better are needed. Subsidies and targeted taxes to support access to fresh food are good ideas in theory. But putting a Safeway into a neighborhood doesn't mean that people will suddenly bypass processed food in favor of cooking healthy food. Does Mr. Bittman propose eliminating all of the unhealthy, processed foods people can by at Supermarkets too?

What do you think is the best course? Should we limit the advertising of fast food? Should we require McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's to modify recipes to ensure that their food is healthier? Should we outlaw sugary sodas? Do you cook, and if so, how much time to you spend on a weekly basis doing so? I'd love to hear some suggestions, because this is a thorny issue, and we could use some constructive solutions.

Categories: Haute Plates, Restaurants