Several years ago, a revolutionary diet book hit the market that advocated a new approach to losing weight. It did not focus on cutting food out of your diet, but on simply swapping the food you were currently eating with lower calorie alternatives . According to one review, the book, “Arms you with the savvy tricks and insider information you need to eat well in today’s dangerous food landscape.” Published by Rodale Press, the book has an organic bias. The authors David Zincezenko and Matt Goulding believe that food companies are deliberately making their food unhealthy and spending billions of dollars in advertising to convince us to eat it. While there is some truth to the latter point, the reasons we eat the food we do and, more interestingly, don’t eat other foods has more to do with history, tradition, culture, and happenstance than advertising.
Much of the food we eat today has only been a staple of the American diet for a little over 100 years. For the first hundred years of this country, the diet of Americans was considerably different. Many of the dishes common in those days have disappeared from our dinner tables. Others have morphed into some a vague resemblance to the original. The change was driven by advancements in technology. Improvements in agricultural production produced new crops or changed old ones. Food processing, storage, and transportation also dramatically changed the nature and variety of food items available to consumers. Much of this change was brought about by those much-maligned food processors.
Long before Monsanto started moving plant genes around, plant breeders were shaping our expectations of what food should be. In nature, carrots come in a variety of colors; but, try getting a consumer to buy a blue carrot today. Dutch carrot breeders started producing exclusively orange carrots. Soon only orange carrots were available, and today people expect carrots to be orange.
One hundred years ago bananas were not common. Only after a US company, United Fruit, bought up large tracts of land in Central America and started growing bananas and shipping them by the boatload to the US did they become a staple of the US diet. While there are a variety of bananas that grow, United Fruit only produced one variety; and, thus, most people only recognize a yellow banana.
Not only do we have built-in expectations of what food should look and taste like, we also have a built in aversion to food we feel is unacceptable. I am not talking personal taste, but, as a society as a whole, there are things most of us won’t eat. Guinea Pigs are raised and consumed in several parts of South America. The recent uproar over horse slaughter shows Americans are not going to eat horse, but that many places in the world do. In many Asian countries, dog is occasionally consumed. Despite our ethnic diversity, our dietary norms are influenced greatly by British and Northern European cultures. Yet, here, too, America has developed its own unique food bias.
According to an article in Modern Farming, the British used to eat swan. Swans are a bird, after all, no different than ducks and quite similar to a Christmas goose. Yet, this bird has never made it to the American dinner table. Several hundred years ago, it was a delicacy consumed by British royalty. Often served at feasts, roast swan was a favored dish in the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, particularly when skinned and redressed in its feathers and served with a yellow pepper sauce. Once prized for their rarity, swans are anything but uncommon today. In Michigan, which has the highest population of mute swans in North America, the creatures are considered pests. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the statewide breeding population increased from about 5,700 to more than 15,000 in just ten years. The birds attack people in the water and on shore, particularly children that wander too close to their nests. The lake in northern Indiana on which I live has seen a growing population of swans.
My point is that our diets and food is ever changing and evolving. From food fads, to new ethnic influences, to new technology and changing cultural norms, people make food decisions on a variety of personal, financial, historical, and cultural factors. Shifts in consumer tastes and preferences are the biggest forces in the food business. Agriculture and big business will respond to these changing market trends. Efforts by government or public health do-gooders to restrict some food choices disrupts this natural shift. Food fear mongers like to predict that 50 years from now we will all be obese and will die of heart disease when we are 40 years old. This hysteria does not take into account that our food choices may be quite different in 50 years: our tastes may be different and the food choices we have may be different. Biotechnology may make our food healthier, and new production technology may make processing, distribution, and preparation of food much different. Who knows, perhaps even swan may be on the menu.
By Gary Truitt