I want to root for these snowboarders trying to get their peers to drink water instead of Gatorade or Red Bull, I really do. I just can’t shake the feeling that their effort, and the broader movement to get people to cook, garden and eat ‘real food’, are doomed.
OK, here’s my logic:
The foundation of the modern economy is the idea of ‘value added’: You’re willing to pay more for a completed product than you are for its component parts. I buy a car from Volkswagen because I lack the skills and equipment to make one myself. They buy metal, rubber and grease, then rent some humans 8 hours at a time to put them together. They make profit by asking me to pay more for the completed car than they paid buying the materials and renting the humans. I know this is how they make profit, they know I know, the world goes around and around.
Food companies are no different than auto companies. They buy a bunch of raw materials, put them together and sell you a product for more than they paid. No big woop.
As opposed to cars, though, the raw materials that go into food products are readily available. The tomatoes, olives and basil sit in the grocery store 10 feet away from a shelf stocked with canned pasta sauce. I can buy a loaf of bread in a plastic bag or I can get some yeast and flour and go home and make one.
In this context, food companies can only make profit in two ways:
The first option is offering their customers convenience. A loaf of bread costs more than yeast and flour, but it saves you three hours of mixing, kneading and loitering around waiting for it to rise. You’re willing to pay extra for this because it saves you time.
The second option is offering their customers unique products that basically can’t be homemade or created in small batches. Coca-Cola, for example, big-ups its ‘secret formula’. You could make cookies or fudge at home, but you couldn’t make a Butterfinger. Pop-Tarts, whatever the fuck those actually are, are the offspring of a conveyor belt, not an oven.
For food companies, all the profit is in the processing. And the more processed something is, the more money the company makes.
Check out the top 10 food brands in America:
- ConAgra Foods
- Dean Foods
- Sara Lee Corp.
- Smithﬁeld Foods
These companies aren’t getting rich selling foods straight off the tree or out of the ground. They’re successful because they’ve engineered products consumers are willing to pay a premium for.
Look at this graphic on ConAgra’s homepage:
What the fuck are these products?! SmartPop? Café Steamers?! Every capitalized word on these packages is designed to remind you that all the work has already been done. Don’t lift a finger! It’s already Reddi!
Tyson’s homepage is even more ghastly. Check out the righthand bar:
Grilled and Ready! Heat and Eat! Don’t get up, we’ve got this!
Every time a consumer reaches for an ingredient rather than a package, the food companies lose profit. This is why Big Food fights every effort to reform the food system. From better labelling laws to promoting farmers’ markets to getting snowboarders to drink more water, it’s all the beginning of consumers telling food companies: What do I need you for?
A safer, healthier and more organic food culture doesn’t mean you won’t buy food from these companies anymore. It means you’ll buy less profitable food. That’s what they’re scared of.
These companies can either fight the reform of the food system or try to make money off of it. The food industry already offers a million products labeled ‘light’, ‘low-fat’, ‘no carb’, ‘natural’, ‘heart-healthy’ and so on. All of these terms are complete nonsense, and just represent a way for the food companies to even further process raw materials and charge you a premium. You could probably make cream cheese at home if you really tried, but you definitely couldn’t make Lite cream cheese.
So even if the companies above sign on to the sustainable-food movement, their profit-maximizing natures dictate that they still have to offer us convenience or unique products, the things that got us into this mess in the first place. As long as the cost-benefit analysis favors processing over simplicity, they have no incentive to offer healthy products. And we have no incentive to buy raw materials ourselves.