Sweetness and power

Fred Gardner on American society and sweet snacks.

One out of 10 meals purchased from a restaurant this year will be consumed in a car. When snacks from convenience stores are included, the incidence of eating-while-driving may be as high as one in six meals, according to a marketing survey reported in the Wall Street Journal. "Consumers are very proud when they use time more efficiently," says consultant Gary Steibel of Westport, Conn. Burger King is testing "a new pocket-like sandwich wrapper that is easier to pick up and put down -- a benefit in stop-and-go traffic..." Steve Barnett, an anthropologist and principal with Global Business Network, which tracks consumer behavior (and former director of product planning for Nissan North America) says some people today get upset if their commute is too short because it's the only time they have to themselves. “Work is hectic, home is hectic, but the car is always quiet.” he says.

Some behavioral experts say the urge to eat in the car may run even deeper. People need to balance their sensory stimulation, says Michael T. Marsden, a dean at Northern Michigan University who has done extensive research on car culture in America... “Some industry experts think the car companies will eventually come around to equipping cars for mealtime." Drive through windows now account for 55% of the business in restaurants where they’re available. "French fries are eminently eatable in the car," says a McDonald's spokesperson. Guess he doesn't use much ketchup.

In Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz shows how capitalism has undermined the social quality of eating as well as the nutritional content of what we eat. The diet of Scottish working people (who, until the mid-18th century were mainly agricultural workers), was based on porridge and milk. When the workers were driven off the land, they switched to bread with butter and tea with sugar. "The jute industry provided opportunities for female labour, so that many housewives went out to work in Dundee. When the mother is at work there is not time to prepare porridge or broth..."

Mintz adds, "Sweetened preserves (more than 50% sugar), which could be left standing indefinitely without spoiling ;and without refrigeration, which were cheap and appealing to children, and which tasted better than more costly butter with store-purchased bread, outstripped or replaced porridge, much as tea had replaced milk and home-brewed beer. In practice, the convenience foods freed the wage-earning wife from one or even two meal preparations per day, meanwhile providing large numbers of calories to all her family. Hot tea (with sugar) often replaced hot meals for children off the job, as well as for adults on the job." At the start of the 19th century, sugar accounted for 2 percent of the total calories in Scottish workers' diet. By the end of the century it was more than 14 percent.

The trend continues worldwide, with simple carbohydrates (sucrose) replacing complex carbohydrate (starches) wherever workers have been driven off the land (everywhere). "Together with the sugar increases come remarkable increase in the consumption of fats," according to Mintz. In the US the consumption of sugar as a proportion of carbohydrates has doubled in this century. The total daily average per capita consumption of complex carbohydrates fell from about 350 grams to about 180 grams between 1910 and 1970, while the consumption of fat increased by 25 percent. With further increase in recent years, the typical American is now consuming three-quarters of a pound of fat and sugar per day.

The way we live now is characterized by "desocialized eating," says Mintz. "Choices to be made about eating -- when, where, what, how much, how quickly -- are now made with less reference to fellow eaters, and within ranges predetermined, on the one hand, by food technology and, on the other, by what are perceived as time constraints. The experience of time in modern society is often one of an insoluble shortage, and the perception may be essential to the smooth functioning of an economic system based on the principle of ever-expanding consumption." Mintz's brilliant

study provides data that debunks the myth of progress and the myth that capitalism promotes "family values."

-- Fred Gardner

reprinted from the Anderson Valley Advertiser

(POB 459,Boonville, CA 95415)