We’ve Sold the Definition of Food
What happens when the food we consume cannot sustain us?
The hypercapitalistic horror film “Soylent Green” introduced us to the idea of an all-encompassing supplement in place of food. The offering was somehow still diversified enough to make people feel like they had choices. This included one made of people’s bodies in the overpopulated future. Taking a cue from the source material for this film, a startup actually produced a somewhat flavorless supplement promising to provide the same complete nutrition.
Just why it seemed like a good idea was beyond many review websites, but what Soylent managed to do is convince an audience of people that they hated spending time cooking nutritious food, or sharing a meal with their loved ones, and that they could instead commodify that time by replacing it with monochrome paste. They successfully persuaded many folks to replace something that has been the basis of large parts of every culture: meals. Did Soylent successfully replace enjoyable food culture in an era of “foodies” and Instagram food pics? Sort of.
Many people could not get past the lack of fiber and the terrible time in the bathroom that ensued after committing to the plan. However, it was still fairly popular at its time of inception, with plenty wanting to try it out for the novelty if nothing else.
We pay to eat gold and other substances that offer no nutritious value or flavor just for the experience. In the case of Soylent, we were willing to pay to replace the experience of eating with… well, nothing. This search for novelty is something we rely on too much in the food industry.
Kraft-Heinz was the subject of much investment news earlier this year when it announced record losses. The company still has not recovered. Based on the number of analyses and far too lengthy hot takes published, one would think the brand had crashed the American market and begun a second Great Depression. Hidden in the hullabaloo is a far more chilling story about the American relationship to food as a for-profit industry: We’ve accepted the fable of Heinz as a classic U.S. brand and allowed corporations and profitability to redefine what is considered food.
After the fall of Kraft-Heinz stock the business journalism market was flooded with investment advice. How to recover, when to buy back, what to sell, what genius-philanthropists like Warren Buffett suggested. Missing from all of this was the fact that Kraft-Heinz and other food companies manufactured products for human consumption so far from the human ability to process nutrients that we are now starving and dying while contending with diabetes. So desirous are we of the kindly entrepreneur that we have traded away our health.
In fact, Kraft-Heinz’s plan now to resolve low sales is to move their classically overprocessed items into premium markets. Meaning they would take items primarily purchased by lower-income families and begin marketing them as higher-end foods.
The right of all people to healthy, filling food should be uncontested. Yet in American policymaking, we fall back on the idea that the right to live is dependent on our ability to earn a place by selling our labor and the right to turn a profit trumps all. Without the ability to sell our labor, we as citizens have no value, and thereby do not deserve to live.
This can be seen in our continued attempts to block access to food stamps through drug testing, work requirements, and restrictions on the items that can be purchased. On top of this, when companies rise and fall, they irrevocably change what we have access to. What does it say about us that a quintessential American brand has ceased investment in feeding people, and instead creates Cadbury cream-flavored mayonnaise for…sandwiches? Fruit dip? Ambrosia salad?
Heinz made a name for itself during the first Great Depression, when its accessible products were created at a lower cost to help consumers save while providing filling foodstuffs. Similarly, Kraft Foods Inc. was formed to consolidate the market on specific food goods by offering a regulated quality in the 1920s and ’30s. But profitability now must come in an endlessly competitive market where productivity is outpaced by exponentially growing demand and continued expectation of low cost.
It is not enough for Kraft-Heinz to make a good product at a pace matching demand; it must also populate our refrigerator doors with as much branding as possible. It must fill an end cap, have a reserved section of the condiment aisle in our stores.
The legacy of Heinz, the man, is a fiction of American capitalism. He was one of those adorable neighborhood child entrepreneurs who built an empire from his neighbors’ good-natured encouragement. The company Heinz merged with, Kraft, was begun by a Chicago door-to-door cheesemonger. It was sold to investors as a way to corner the market on specific food goods. Kraft-Heinz as a company has been leaning heavily on the Heinz narrative as a trusted household brand. That method has not paid out for its new owners.
The idea of paying dues is deeply ingrained in American society, and indeed appears in the mythology of the Heinz and Kraft rise to prominence. Both brands began as small ventures claimed by singular men, and both supposedly worked to provide the American public with something they tell us we needed.
What, then, is ketchup? It is a standard condiment born from a cross-cultural legacy of sauces that has been upgraded from unregulated bottled offal to something we smother on food, fried or otherwise. Quality of ingredients was said to be important to Heinz when he requested his chemist-cousin Sebastian Mueller create preservative-free ketchup. This was to combat negative press about the poisonous effects of preservatives used in heavy quantities by Heinz and other food producers at the time. Was its standardization at the table as a safe additive to food a triumph of capitalism or a right of the people consuming it?
In 1904, Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” inspired a president to introduce standards of quality into an industry that had been killing people. Another element of Heinz’s legacy is his rise to supremacy in the condiment market through innovation over a product of dangerous repute. Heinz embraced the push for safer foodstuffs, claiming to be a driving force in the policymaking.
Its safety is an interesting subject: While no longer responsible for outright poisoning folks, ketchup has more sugar than dessert. By sugar, I mean the twice-processed corn boiled down into syrup that would have killed our ancestors from the shock of sweetness.
NPR recently reported on a Lancet study finding that bad diets result in more deaths than cigarette habits. Another finding of the study was that if everyone took up the diet professed to lead to the longest life, we would run out of food. We cannot produce enough to feed and guarantee life to our population. While not discussed directly in the article, it is likely that not enough food is currently produced to feed everyone correctly because much of what we eat is not sustaining.
What are we eating, and how did we get here?
Part of this decline can be traced to mega-producers like Kraft and Heinz as separate entities entering the pre-packaged food market. Rather than produce bulk ingredients, the conglomerates were drawn together by buying up ready-to-serve and already-portioned-out brands such as Ore-Ida and Starkist Tuna and ultimately banding together themselves.
The convenience of ready-to-eat meals has come at the cost of our health. It is not just our addiction to snack cakes and chips that has led to our early deaths. It is also that mac and cheese with instant noodles and fake cheese, whether organic or not, is a meal; that Bagel Bites can be either a dinner or an after-dinner snack; that various textures of “sweet” are the only dessert flavor.
Numerous articles cite Kraft-Heinz’s failure to capitalize on its own contributions to one of the world’s most deadly problems as its downfall. Like Anheuser Busch, they theorize, Kraft-Heinz should have owned their culpability and prostrated themselves in Super Bowl ads before a feeling public. But Kraft-Heinz sold their premade meals to us on convenience. We chose not having to prepare our own food over our health, and we are now paying the price.
Josephine Maria Yanasak-Leszczynski is a writer exploring futures and film from my apartment above a noodle shop in Chicago. (Yan-a-sak Less-chin-skee)