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.