What the hell is “Foodness”?

Most people probably have an opinion on the issue of food labels. Here is Michael Pollan, specifically on the labelling of GMO foods, up for the “Prop 37” vote in California in a few weeks time (Pollan notes that should the proposition pass, it could ‘change the politics of food not just in California but nationally too,’ ideally subverting the ‘power of Big Food.’ In other words, he considers this to be a pretty big deal). In Pollan’s camp, here is Mark Bittman with a description of his ideal food label. Here is a response from Tyler Cowen on why Bittman’s ideal is myopic and naive. Here is Ivo Vegter with a local perspective.

Let’s go back to Bittman’s ideal label. I’ll leave the economics to the economists, but here is the bit that I find, uhm, challenging:

Every packaged food label would feature a color-coded bar with a 15-point scale so that almost instantly the consumer could determine whether the product’s overall rating fell between 11 and 15 (green), 6 and 10 (yellow) or 0 and 5 (red). This alone could be enough for a fair snap decision. (We’ve also got a box to indicate the presence or absence of G.M.O.’s.)

We arrive at the score by rating three key factors, each of which comprises numerous subfactors. The first is the obvious “Nutrition,” about which little needs to be said. High sugar, trans fats, the presence of micronutrients and fiber, and so on would all be taken into account. Thus soda would rate a zero and frozen broccoli might rate a five. (It’s hard to imagine labeling fresh vegetables.)

The second is “Foodness.” This assesses just how close the product is to real food. White bread made with bleached flour, yeast conditioners and preservatives would get a zero or one; so would soda; a candy bar high in sugar but made with real ingredients would presumably score low on nutrition but could get a higher score on “foodness”; here, frozen broccoli would rate a four.

The third is “Welfare”, which doesn’t concern me much here. No, it’s the “Foodness” that irks me. Actually, I don’t know why I’m surprised. The idea that processed white bread should score a zero in the “real food” department is hardly new, thanks of course to Michael Pollan and his “eat mostly plants” and “nothing that a kindergarten child can’t make or pronounce” – or is it your grandmother? Whatever.

Let’s examine the logic here. White, processed bread is a non-food, while some candy bar made from ‘real ingredients’ would count as actual food. In other words, when neurotic, health-obsessed southern-suburb mommy snacks on a date ball from some health shop, we can applaud her for choosing actual food, but not one of the majority of the 50-million people or so who live in this country and who buy and rely on “government loaf”?

What exactly are ‘real’ ingredients? The stuff that goes into Nakd bars?

(Please, no jokes about the Naked Chef. Too tired).

Obviously not one of the two key ingredients in a Bunny Chow:

Think what you like about which of those two images looks more appetising. And also know that I am not discounting some of the potential health problems associated with relying too heavily on foods like white, processed bread for sustenance. But to suggest that it is not sustenance – as I believe “food” ought primarily to be – is to exhibit the most heinous and self-righteous provincialism.

I have enjoyed Mark Bittman’s food columns for years. I think he’s a good writer, and he has some great ideas in the kitchen. I have even implemented some of them (no doubt with some tweaks of my own). But now I have to say: seriously? Get out of your (local, organic, heirloom tomato-populated) backyard and pay some attention to the rest of the world. In fact, Mr. Bittman, I invite you to come visit us here in South Africa. But before you do, consider this a primer on how some people live. I dare you to tell these people that their daily bread is lacking in “foodness.” Then try to convince them to care.

One Reply to “What the hell is “Foodness”?”

  1. I strongly agrre with the story. It show how food labeling is important and the fact it is specifally states GMO Food. No matter what type of food you order make sure it has labelings on it,

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