Obesity, gluttony, & lust: How food tech gives us what we want — not what we need.
Food tech is scrambling to create tasty, cheap food products that don’t expand our waistlines. Sound too good to be true? Unfortunately, it is.
A quick look at the rates of obesity and food-related illness will show you that gluttony is a sin we don’t mind committing. Globally, the rate of obesity has tripled since 1975. Around 2.1 billion people worldwide are overweight, a third of whom are obese.
We regularly consume more food than our bodies need and we’re quietly hoping we can avoid the consequences without having to change.
Along with gluttony, lust is another old-school physical sin alive and well today. While we are eating more processed, fatty foods than ever before, there is also a strong desire to remain slim, physically attractive, and sexually available. Compromise has never been our strong suit and with our usual technology-will-save-us attitude, we’re praying we won’t have to.
As we speak, food tech is rushing to meet the growing demand for cheap, tasty products that don’t expand our waistlines. We want gluttony without the negative effects on our health and physical appearance. We want a sacrifice-free, everything-the-same-but-more-of-it future. And as always, we want it cheap.
The technological boom of the last few decades has led to unprecedented change in the way we live. It has also created unreal expectations and a passive, lazy kind of optimism that technology will solve all our problems for us.
But can food tech give us what we want? Can it give us a world where gluttony, lust, and healthy living all happily coexist? Can it feed the world’s rising population? Can it give us a future where food is affordable and all the other lofty things we want it to be? After 20 years of working in the food industry, I don’t believe it can.
There really aren’t many cheap, healthy, and good tasting food products available to us. And there’s a reason for that. With the current food production system and the needs of the market, it simply isn’t possible. Food that is tasty, healthy AND cheap is a paradox no-one wants to acknowledge.
When you make something cheap, you sacrifice nutrition. When you make something healthy, you sacrifice it being cheap. Besides growing your own vegetable garden in your backyard, the prospect of widely available, cheap, nutritious, and delicious food doesn’t seem likely.
Food tech and the market
With 8 billion of us and another 2 billion set to arrive by 2050, resources are starting to wear thin. Additionally, the cheapest, most processed products are routinely subsidized by governments and mass-produced in order to turn a profit and satisfy a rapidly growing population.
For example, a product like corn (used to make most junk food) is heavily subsidized and often artificially tampered with to reduce costs and increase its shelf-life. On the other hand, healthy foods like kale have a short-shelf life, require refrigeration, and have a far lower yield per acre. This means that in order to turn a profit you have to charge a lot more for it, effectively making it unaffordable for a big portion of society.
And the food tech industry is not to blame. Food tech is merely doing its best to adapt to fast-changing trends and satisfy the rising population — hardly putting it in a position to judge or question the market trends themselves.
Food tech is and always has been an industry driven by the wants of the market and will naturally use the resources and systems available to satisfy the demand. Unfortunately, this means no cheap and easy solution to our gluttony, beauty, and health issues.
The bottom line: Food has to be cheap and taste good.
Good tasting food (regardless of what’s in it) has to be accessible to all for the system to keep working the way it does. If low-income workers could only afford bland food, they would learn how miserable and inadequate their income truly is and there would be major social unrest. Instead, they are kept satiated by the very affordable, tasty, but nutrient lacking food that the food industry provides.
Like the days of ancient Rome, we are given entertainment and food that keeps us full, sedated, and not questioning or demanding a better alternative.
Sugar: the opiate of the masses
Food, in many ways, is the ultimate equalizer. Everyone needs it and nobody wants food that doesn’t taste good. There is also a strong social component to it, which both governments and corporations are well aware of. While corporations prioritize profit, they also care about their public image and making their shareholders (e.g. governments) happy.
Governments maintain and sell the notion that all members of society are equal and important, even when they’re not. To effectively present this, they need to make food (society's most basic necessity) both affordable and full of flavor.
Given that sugar is extremely cheap, addictive and can make pretty much anything taste good, it is the perfect drug for people of all classes and the best solution they have. Food being cheap is the top priority.
But if it’s cheap then it can’t be healthy. And if it can’t be healthy then at least it can be tasty! For many people of low socioeconomic standing, being able to afford food that tastes good is essential to their identity, and contentedness with the system they live in.
They may not be able to afford a nice car, house, or be able to send their kids to a good school, but they have easy access to food that satisfies their taste buds and is intoxicatingly delicious.
It’s hard to think about anything else when you have a mouthful of cheesy-puffs or are throwing back a cold can of Coke. The soft textures and mouth-watering flavors wrap you in a state of momentary, opiate bliss. And when it’s over? You can always get some more. It’s cheap, accessible, insidiously advertised, and designed to make you feel like you always have room for more.
Rates of heart disease, diabetes, and other non-communicable diseases are extremely high among low socioeconomic communities. Making junk food widely available to the underprivileged members of society keeps the show going and the downtrodden stressing less about the things they can’t afford and the reasons they can’t afford them.
How do we solve a problem we don’t really want to solve?
But surely there are some of us who don’t just want cheap, fattening junk food, right? Some of us are health conscious and want nutritious options that aren’t going to lead us to an early grave. Sure. But what is the price — and are we willing to pay it?
There are those of us that want ethically produced, organic, healthy, and delicious food. And there are those of us who can afford it. The reality for most people, however, is that these products that tick all the boxes for our bodies, the environment, and the animals involved, are simply not in our budget.
The technology to make nutritious food that also tastes amazing has been around for a long time. It’s the cost that’s the problem. The price of these kinds of products rarely matches consumer expectations, making it impossible to market and sell to the masses.
Many of us may want healthier food options, but we aren’t willing, or simply cannot pay for it. Food is a basic necessity and people don’t feel like they should need to pay an arm and a leg for it.
We think we want to solve the problem of ultra-processed, fattening foods, but at the end of the day, we go to supermarkets and vote with our wallets. Food needs to be affordable and easy on the taste buds before it needs to be healthy and nutritious. And so food tech acts accordingly. It’s not food tech that is broken, it’s the market.
There is an undeniable demand for tasty, healthy food that is affordable for everyone. But given the current food system, resources available, market priorities, and rapidly rising population, this is a paradox that even food tech cannot solve. But that doesn’t mean it won’t try anyway. But what will likely result will be more of the same. Products that are cheap, tasty, and falsely and unashamedly advertised as healthy — even though they’re not.
A future where we can stuff our faces with cheap food that tastes great and leaves us looking slim and beautiful is, unfortunately, not a future we can have. You can’t have milk and meat from the same cow. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If we want to stay fit and healthy, we’re going to have to make a sacrifice. Eventually, something has to give.
Generalist that thinks broadly (not deeply).