Labeling

Mark Bittman says what I couldn’t the other day in his Friday post on the New York Times:

The labels designed to signal that food what we want it to be — whatever we want it to be, whether “healthy” or “low-fat” or “local” — aren’t helpful, and every one of them will be co-opted by marketers as soon as it’s invented. (Myself I like “seasonal,” but it’s always spring somewhere, isn’t it? And of course I eat frozen vegetables, meat, and fish from time to time.)

I’m sure we can agree that there is movement (note that I did not write “a” movement) in the United States towards better food, good, real food, at least among a significant portion of the population.
So instead of labeling ourselves — I only eat “local,” “seasonal,” or “organic” food — why don’t we just say we strive to eat “good” or “wholesome” food?

Over the past several years, I’ve been using these terms as a sort of short hand for foods that “are better than what one finds in typical Safeway.” Foods found at farmers markets and the ever popular Pike Place could easily be counted on to, at the very least, be better in taste than what I used to eat.

And then two key events took place in the world of “locavorism” and “organic”.

One: The terms took on a near political overtone, partially out of necessity, but mostly because these terms became shorthand for the fact that the standard channel of food delivery in the country is broken. What with the melamine scare, spinach recall, peanuts with salmonella, and several dozen other events that have been in the news of late, buying organic or local became not just a means to buy better tasting food, but a means to alert producers that some of us are not to keen on what they’ve been doing.

The problem in adding politics into the world of food and dining is people become staunch advocates for certain philosophies, often times forgetting that it is possible to produce mainstream food products without having it leaving a deep carbon footstep, or taste better than the ‘organic’ alternative. Much like any other deep philosophy, once you have people advocating strict adherence to a way of life, they invariably take the fun out of it.

Two: The second item that happened is that food producers recognized the money making opportunity that comes from having people like those mentioned above. People can and do purchase food simply because they have ‘organic’ on the label, regardless of how the food tastes. Bittman covers most of this in his post, but it should be pointed out that companies taking advantage of this was easily foretold, because this is what companies do. See the bastardization of the term ‘natural’ that Mssr. Bittman refers to.

The problem with using terms such as ‘good’ or ‘wholesome’ is that these are words with ambiguity built into them. I can’t speak to what is good beyond myself, and maybe a friend or two. And as for ‘wholesome’? Let’s just assume that your definition of that word and my own likely differ by a fair amount.

This is the point, isn’t it? Quick and easy labeling is a cheap shortcut for us to have food producers tell us what’s good for us.
Calling things ‘good’ or ‘wholesome’ puts the onus back on us, not only to determine what these terms mean, but to look for food that meets those definitions.

Eating well is not a job for the lazy, regardless of what the definition of ‘well’ is.