Beautiful Food: When Markets Misinterpret Our Desires


LIZ WILLIAMS (This article was first published in September 2012)

Bread and Butter explores food, policy, and law. Click the logo for more of this fabulous column. Bread and Butter explores food, policy, and law. Click the logo for more of this fabulous column.

Bread and Butter explores food, policy, and law. Click the logo for more of this fabulous column.

Since I have been thinking about food policy recently, I have given some attention to questions of taste and the response of the market to consumer demands. In our market-driven economy, we see two components. One is the market appealing to the consumer through advertising, essentially creating demand. And the other is the market responding to consumer desire – or the market’s interpretation of consumer demand. An example of market response is the proliferation of organic foods in the regular grocery store or the declaration by dairies that their cows are not treated with growth hormones.

It seems to me that we are in a constant search for taste in our food. That is why we are drawn to foods that are rich in salt, sugar and fats.  The market certainly responds to these desires.  It means that we eat candy bars, doughnuts, ice cream, lasagna, pasta Alfredo, buttered bread, fast food and so much more.  At the same time that we are searching for and finding rich and tasty foods, the agricultural market it producing foods to fulfill the perceived need of the consumer for beautiful food.  By beautiful food, I mean the perfect and unblemished tomato or peach – one that is sturdy enough to travel across the country. In the grocery many people do judge the fruits and vegetables by their appearance.  We no longer taste the fruit.  And often the fruit and vegetables are prepackaged, thus we cannot squeeze them or smell them.  The look of the produce is all that is left to our senses to evaluate.

But is the marketplace right? Do we still want a plum that looks good or tastes good?  Do we save our tasty plums for the companies that dry them to make prunes, which are then individually wrapped like candy? Do we sell the pretty plums for the consumer table, even if they never ripen and can be substituted for hockey pucks. When was the last time you found a tender and fragrant plum at the grocery that sent juice running down your arm with each bite?  We search for one, but our choices are based on lovely visual cues, not the useful cues that would allow us to make a tasty choice, that are hidden behind plastic wrap.

Photo by Neutrality,Fir 002 via Wikimedia Commons. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Fir0002

In our quest for taste we buy the pretty produce. When we eat it, however, it is a disappointment. We do not understand that the produce that is hybridized for appearance might sacrifice taste. The market has told us that the fruit is better.  But it is not a better tasting fruit; it is a better traveling fruit. After a few tries and the concomitant disappointments, we simply stop buying produce. Without making our own salads and eating fruits and vegetables, we are forced to eat our vegetables at restaurants and our fruits in the form of dessert.  If we do prepare vegetables at home, they are often frozen with sauces that are salty and fatty with cheese and cream because we are still looking for taste. And it is no wonder that people say that they do not like vegetables and fruits. They have never tasted good ones.

This is not a diatribe against hybridization. I like the idea of being able to use nature to create something better.  Nature is providing the tools in the form of genes.Mendel started it years ago. But I want it better for me, not just industry. I want it to taste better, not look better. Once it is in my mouth I cannot see it anymore, but I can surely still taste it. And if it cannot taste better, at least make it more nutritious. I do not care about the well-traveled tomato. No tomato on my plate is better than a mealy tasteless beautiful tomato.

If we are trying to encourage our children and the rest of the population to eat their vegetables and fruits, let’s give them some good (by good I mean tasty) ones. Give me a tomato with a worm hole that tastes wonderful with a bit of salt on a tomato sandwich. I will cut off the bruise caused by sending the tomato from the farm to my table. The marketplace is wrong in thinking that we only want beautiful food. It has trained us to want beautiful food instead of tasty food.  And if we ate tasty food, we wouldn’t go back. Give our children a chance to eat a soft, fragrant, and juicy peach or plum. That is a policy worth getting behind.

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