I’m shocked, shocked that I haven’t persuaded basically anyone that those four things are true. But the fight continues.
1. We eat junk food because it’s cheap.
If there is only one idea that I would like to exile from food discourse, it is this: we eat junk food because of subsidies.
Junk food is not expensive! That’s because the building blocks of junk food — refined grains, sugar, oil — are cheap. But these building blocks are cheap because of the inherent qualities of the plant, not because the government has subsidized them for decades.
If you have any doubts about this, check out the estimates that agricultural schools publish on the costs of producing an acre of corn versus an acre of broccoli.
According to a University of California system researchers estimatethe cost to produce a 23 pound can of broccoli is about $15.
According to a Iowa State Estimate, the cost of producing a 56 pound bushel of corn is about $4.
And corn is way more food. This bushel makes 1,500 tortillas (6 inch tortillas, 60 calories), each with a quarter cent of corn. Can of broccoli makes 70 2-cup servings (about 150 grams, 60 calories), each with 21 cents of broccoli. Yes, we don’t eat tortillas; we eat Twinkies. The example is just to put the inherent low price of ingredients into perspective. I’ve spoken to many economists about this over the years, and most tell me that subsidies are responsible for no more than about 10% of the price of staple crops. And since the cost of food is typically 10-15% of the cost of processed foods, that’s 1% of the price of your Twinkie.
We eat Twinkie-esque food because food companies with billion dollar budgets and not caring about our health stay up late trying to figure out how to make cheap food irresistible. And guess what? They have become very good at it.
2. Diet soda is fine.
There is no evidence that diet sodas are bad for us.
Oh wait, except for those big observational studies. In these, diet sodas correlate with all things bad. Cancer, obesity, diabetes, just to start! But a funny thing happens when you give people artificial sweeteners: nothing. Unless you count lose some weight.
In the real world, drinking diet soda shows that you’re not listening to the nutrition authorities, who have advised against it for decades. And if you don’t listen to that, what else could you not listen to? The cancer, obesity, and diabetes that correlate with diet soda are probably not caused by diet soda, but by other dietary and health habits for which diet soda is a marker.
If you’re like most health-conscious people, the idea that artificial sweeteners are bad runs deep. But the most important thing to remember about them is that you consume them in small amounts. A Splenda package contains 12 milligrams of sucralose. Sure, it’s possible that 12 milligrams of something could harm you, but if something is that dangerous, it’s pretty easy to figure it out.
People have been trying to find trouble with artificial sweeteners for decades, and they just haven’t. If you drink them in soda, or use them to sweeten things you make at home. Keep on going. It is very good.
3. Local foods are not better for the climate.
I do my best to buy local vegetables and meat. I want agriculture in my community. I like going to the farmers market.
But no matter how you slice it, local foods aren’t better for the environment. They just aren’t.
Intuitively, it makes sense that they are! If your lettuce is traveling across town instead of across country, that’s a few thousand fossil fuel miles that don’t have to happen. But it turns out that transport represents only a very small fraction of the climate impact of food: less than 10% most of the time.
The weather isn’t the only thing I think about when choosing dinner. Local farms can contribute to local economies, provide community touchstones, and simply be a place where a child can meet a pig. If you want to reduce the harmful effects of your diet on the climate, eat more of the crops that have the least impact on the environment: cereals, legumes, nuts, tubers, tree fruits. That doesn’t mean you have to stop buying local.
4. Salad is a first-world luxury.
Let’s make one thing clear. Lettuce is a vehicle for bringing chilled water from farm to table.
If you have the intuitive feeling that a food that is 96% water is a waste of resources and zero nutrition, you are right. If you don’t, you could be one of the millions of people who harshly criticized me when I wrote about the green, leafy climate threat that the lettuce is.
Well, that’s a bit unfair. The salad is not a threat; it is only a luxury. It uses too many resources for too little food to be a wise choice for human or planetary health. It graces my table because I love it and because it can help me say no to seconds of lasagna. But it’s a solution to a first-world problem: too much food. The idea that we deliberately grow and eat foods specifically because they are low in calories only makes sense in a world of overabundance.
But there is also a catch. Lettuce lends its halo of health to anything bowled with it, and the salads we consider healthy usually aren’t. If you buy a salad, then remove the lettuce, you see what you are really eat for lunch: sad little brown piles of croutons, salad dressing, grated cheese and chicken strips.
Of course, there are salads rich in grains or beans, populated with bonafide nutritious vegetables like kale and broccoli, which are genuinely nutritious and a great choice. But these are the outliers. Most salads are nutritional and environmental losers.
And, just in case you haven’t found something you disagree with yet, I’ll add that all eggs taste the same. Blindfolded, you can’t tell the eggs of my pampered backyard hens from the ordinary variety of supermarket caged birds. You think you can, but you can’t.
That’s the lot: four, plus a bonus, zombie ideas. It feels good to get all that off my chest! At least until I check Twitter…