Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Fat of the Land.

Prior to traveling to the U.S. we had been told by many that the U.S populated by huge numbers of “fatties”. The truth be told, my own  impression was that the U.S was just as fat as Australia, and on that measure I did not feel too far from home. Still there were some subtle differences. The average young U.S. man seemed less lean than the average Australian, whilst the average U.S. woman seemed slightly leaner than the average Australian. Subtly, Your fatties looked less healthier than ours  Compared to Europe, both countries have serious problems with obesity.

Obesity, is of course, a complex problem being a product of genetics, diet and energy expenditure. What I want to concentrate on here is the food. Now, I’m not particularly into organic foods and don’t mind some pesticide or applied fertilizer; I don’t approach food like a biochemistry assay and I’m not a gourmet. What matters to me is taste and quality, and I like to know that the animals were treated well before they were slaughtered. However after eating in the U.S. I did get the impression that “junk’ food was the staple and fresh produce was a premium product

Quite a few U.S. bloggers have lamented the state of U.S nutrition and I’m the emerging “Paleo” trend. I initially thought that their commentary was a bit over-the-top  but after my travels I want to fully endorse them. Never have I eaten so badly as I have in the U.S.

Firstly, the supermarkets. I actually like visiting supermarkets whilst  traveling in foreign countries, as it gives a good index to the cost of living compared to Australia and it also gives a good idea of what locals like to consume. Comparing Australian to U.S supermarkets, I would say that:

1) In the U.S., processed food (meals in a can, frozen dinners, breakfast cereals, chocolates etc) were much, much cheaper than in Australia.
2) With regard to cost, fresh fruit and vegetables were on par.
3)However on average, the quality of the fresh fruit, meat and vegetables seemed lower than at home. Whole Foods was very good but not superlative.
4)Big supermarkets tended to have a good selection of foods.
5)Smaller supermarkets tended to resemble the supermarkets in Eastern Europe, with a very large selection of processed food and a small selection of fresh produce.
6)Alcohol was much cheaper in the U.S.

With regard to restaurants, food, in mid level, “sit down” , non-chain type of restaurants was generally quite good. Expensive restaurants all over the world generally provide good food. Where the the food was quite bad was in the roadside type chain restaurant and chain-diner.  While the portion sizes in most roadside diners and chain restaurants were generous, the quality of it was extremely poor. It was fatty, but in a bad way, and it all seemed to possess an underlying bland factory processed taste. In Las Vegas I discovered that scrambled eggs and pancakes came out of a bottle. Much like the man who fed himself on McDonalds for a month, I was beginning to fell unwell by the end of my trip. My children were actually craving vegetables by the end of the trip. ( BTW, what is it with orange cheese?)

What I found very hard to find was food that was cheap, reasonably healthy and tasty. In Australia, for example, its really easy to find stores which sell fresh tasty rolls and sandwiches, using fresh ingredients and crusty breads, even in small regional centers.  In New York, I ended up grabbing a sandwich at the Deli section of Whole Foods or Pret-a-Manger, not because I wanted to, simply because everything else that was “grab and go” was utter crap. Aside from the huge portion sizes, obligatory melted cheese  and complementary fries, nearly all of the food had that same factory processed taste.  I never thought that I would eat better in London than in New York.

With regard to regional variation. I quite liked the food in the South and can’t rave enough about Jestine’s Kitchen in Charleston. The food there was calorie laden, and probably ‘bad” for me, but unlike most food I had tried, it was incredibly tasty. I know that the South is  “different”, but then again, I got the impression that most American “specialty”  restaurants were quite good, it was the mainstream day-to-day stuff that was bad. That’s the problem. It’s a problem because people make food decisions not only on taste, but on time and economic factors. A tired mother working two jobs trying to keep afloat in the U.S. economy has to buck the economic and time pressures she is under if she wants her family to eat well.  A certain amount of time and economic affluence is required to eat well.

It not only that, what we put into our bodies is just as important as how it tastes and can’t but help feel that part of reason for feeling unhealthy by the end of our trip was because of stuff I ate. Like my kids, I developed a craving for “healthy food”. As mentioned earlier in our post, I notice that the American obese looked more unhealthy than the Australian. Just as grain fed beef tastes different to ranch cattle, was the Australian obese “healthier” than the American because of  dietary composition?

Overall, I got the impression that whilst good food is available in the U.S., it is a relatively difficult to find premium product. The other impression that America left me with, was that the quality of food was being driven down to the bare minimum by the sole metric of the capitalist imperative: the minimal acceptable quality which generates a profit. Compared to the Italians and the French, the Americans on average have much much lower acceptable standards when it comes to the quality of food.


Keoni Galt said...

Very good observations, SP. For myself, it was traveling to your country and to the UK that helped open my eyes to just how bad the standard fare in our country really is.

Oh, and for the alcohol?

Just like the food - it's generally cheaper if you stick to mass produced, substandard crap.

Good beer (Micro Brews and Imports) good wine and good spirits are about on par with the prices found in AU and the UK (taking money conversion rates into account).

Ulysses said...

With regard to produce, I think it's a failure of abundance. People don't want to eat strawberries only when they're in-season, they want them year round. As such, supermarkets have to stock them which means items grown far away and from strains selected or developed for their ability to withstand shipping. Apple skins and orange peels are really thick, but when I buy local apples, the skin is normal and doesn't lodge in between my teeth.

I find organic to be a good option for processed food, if you must. I personally have a weakness for cheese and crackers and the organic crackers I buy do have bad soy oil, generally, but no corn syrup, etc. I can read the ingredients list and find nothing I couldn't buy in the store. Likewise, I usually keep some cookies around for the kids and the organic varieties aren't lab projects, they're cookies.

I'm fortunate in that I have a true local grocery store I shop at. They can't battle the chains on economy of scale, but they can't charge too much either because we do have a choice, so they find lots of local sources for produce, etc. Minimizes their shipping costs and offers fresher, better quality.

The Anti-Gnostic said...

What I found very hard to find was food that was cheap, reasonably healthy and tasty.

I'm not sure what cities and neighborhoods you were in, but I have been poor in the US and have never had this problem. Brown rice, milk, chicken, fish, beef and pork shoulder, carrots, broccoli, bananas, etc. can all be purchased on a low income. The problem for obese Americans is one of time-preference and impulse control, not expense.

I know religious ascetics, hardcore rock climbers and crossfitters who craft specialized and calorie-rich diets on very low incomes. This particular canard needs to be be buried.

Basil Ransom said...

Regarding fatties, that's strange. In my experience, the women are fatter than the men, especially among non-Asian minorities, and CDC statistics bears this out: Women's waist circumferences are twice as far from ideal as men's are.

Anyhow, I agree with your bit on how the food tastes. I grew up in America, but did not eat in fast food chains until I was 20 years old or so, and can hardly bring myself to eat in most of them. Chipotle, in my opinion, is a notable exception, offering fresh basic ingredients with none of the additives or chemical legerdemain that gives all those other chain food that strange factory taste. I also like Fatburger, for a good hearty burger.

My guess is that chain restaurants have done the math and found that shaving a cent off the cost of an entree means millions of dollars more per year in profit, so they'll resort to all sorts of methods and additives to bring down costs. Independent restaurants don't have the scale or expertise necessary to make that viable.

Also, you just couldn't buy meat as bad as the stuff they use at McDonald's or other fast food places.

LordSomber said...

"The problem for obese Americans is one of time-preference and impulse control, not expense."

Not just the obese, but the poor.

I live near a market where staples, produce and meat are quite inexpensive.
But the poorer locals prefer junk food from the convenience store across the street.

GK Chesterton said...

Thank God you liked Southern food. You are correct, we do have an odd food problem.

What strikes me as a native, is that the more "green-local-uppity" the high end cuisine the more pathetic the low end of the scale. One of the nice things about the South is a sort of general quality with not that many high points. California, the land of fusion cuisine, is also the hot-bed of McDonald's.

GK Chesterton said...


I'd actually disagree. I believe our overall tax on alchohol is one of the lowest in the West. I'll have to double check.


Your comment on waistlines is absolutely fascinating. Do you have a link?

The Social Pathologist said...

Thanks for your comments.


I didn't try much of the spirits or beer but I did like American wines.


I think there is a certain amount of truth in your comments. Some of the fruit and veg has been specifically bred to store for long periods or be transport friendly. These characteristics frequently come at the expense of taste and other qualities.

@Anti Gnostic.

I know religious ascetics, hardcore rock climbers and crossfitters who craft specialized and calorie-rich diets on very low incomes

I did not say that good food can't be purchased, I said it appeared not to be easily available. The examples listed above aren't typical Americans. The capitalist system reflects people's preference choices and the mainstream taste did not appear to favour good stuff.


I had a rough idea of the CDC figures before I came, still "on the ground" did not match up with the data; at least in the areas I traveled to. I didn't try Chipotle.

@Lord Somber.

I don't think it's the poor as much as the culturally impoverished that eat badly. I grew up in very working class area made up of post WW2 European migrants. No one was flush with cash. The migrant mothers were notoriously tight with the cash, but even they would not buy certain foodstuffs if they did not make the grade.

As a side note, My father-in-law dropped by today with the most delicious Kransky sausages I've tasted in years. He got them from a bunch of old Eastern European pensioners who were making them themselves; as they were unhappy with the commercial product. None of these pensioners are wealthy but what they do have is a "food culture" which is very hostile to factory processed food. I even know( second hand) of a bunch of guys with stills who make their own booze. It's not because they're trying to be cheap, its because they don't want any "chemicals" in their drink.


I think there is a widening divide between poor and rich, not just in economic metrics but in cultural ones as well

GK Chesterton said...

Interestingly a recent study showed the middle and upper classes made up the majority of good 'ol MickeyDee's revenue. Go figure.

I, a solid member of the top quintile, have been known to use MickeyDee's frequently because its "on the way" to wherever I'm going.

LordSomber said...


Yes, "culturally impoverished" would be more accurate. When I said "poor," I wasn't necessarily talking about income.


Laceagate said...

Americans are also known for believing that healthy= highly expensive. Also, if you take the time to prepare something from scratch so it's healthier and more economical, you're just wasting your time.

Anonymous said...

Try Whole Foods, BJs, Trader Joes and local produce. Everything else is absolute shit.

Anonymous said...

Try Whole Foods, BJs, Trader Joes and local produce. Everything else is absolute shit.