The New Philosophy of Food

I have a beef with local beef.

I have the ultimate key to your grocery budget. I’ve been an expert ever since my search for natural dairy led me from $3.50 gallons at the supermarket to $4.50 half-gallons at Reading Terminal Market. How did I get milked out of $5.50? The answer is one of the great ironies of modern living.

Perhaps it’s best simply to accept the basic truth that you get what you pay for: the organic whole grains in a $4.29 loaf of bread are more nutritious than high fructose corn syrup, a main ingredient of Wonder Bread, which costs less than two dollars. But the longer I’m immersed in the specialty supermarket, the more it seems that something stranger is afoot. I see it in every part of the store. Less is more. And more is less. Money, that is.

The price of food rises or falls in direct relationship to its number of ingredients and the amount of processing it requires. However, these differences in price are counter-intuitive. The most expensive foods are the ones with the fewest ingredients. The more processed a product is, the less it costs.

For example, while a typical jar of peanut butter costs a few bucks, a jar of organic raw almond butter costs about twenty bucks at Whole Foods. Yes, one is peanuts and one is almonds. But I suspect the inflated price has more to do with the fact that the almond butter, in addition to being chemical-free, has only one ingredient (ground almonds – not even any salt!) and is raw instead of roasted. Such basic simplicity in food is reserved only for those with the most extravagant budgets.

It’s the same story in the juice aisle. I’m used to the organic juice costing twice as much as the non-organic. But why does it have to be more expensive to manufacture juice that has only water and fruit, while juices made of sweeteners, preservatives and dyes are dirt cheap? And why does the “unfiltered” apple juice cost at least a dollar more than any other apple juice? What takes more effort: filtering the juice before you bottle it, or simply bottling it? The high price of no filtration would indicate the latter.

Environmentally conscious animal products are an even worse budget minefield. Cage-free hens who ate organic vegetarian feed lay eggs that cost three times as much as the average grocery-store dozen. Why do I have to pay more when the chicken was on a restricted diet? I suppose if the chicken had been dining on filet mignon its eggs would be much less expensive. (I get the uncomfortable feeling that people are pushing their own agenda onto the chickens – perhaps protein-starved vegetarians feel better about eating a fellow creature’s eggs if that creature was on a diet they approve of.)

Buying meat is even harder. I like meat, but I hate the horrors of the modern factory slaughterhouse – that’s why I like to get chicken, pork or beef from local farms. But isn’t it ironic that while we’ll shell out at the pharmacy for our own antibiotics, we’ll pay through the nose for meat from animals who did not take antibiotics?

It’s hard enough to accept that I must pay more for milk from cows whose natural food was not sprayed with pesticides. Why must milk cost more when it is whole, unpasteurized and unhomogenized? It seems like someone was just spared a whole lot of trouble in getting the milk from the cow to my fridge. “Straight from the meadow to the market,” one label brags – so what am I paying so much for?

I never questioned the expense of imported food. Someone has to be paid to carry that dollop of foil-wrapped butter all the way from Europe. But lately I’ve noticed a new trend in gastronomical fees: “local” is the new shorthand for “priced sky-high.” Want a pork chop from a pig that was raised in your home state? That’ll be $7.00 a pound. Want to pay less? Eat meat that was shipped from much further away.

If my next-door neighbor were to raise an un-medicated cow on the pesticide-free grass in his own backyard, and then butcher it on his porch, I would have to sell my own kidney to afford one steak. If the guy across the street were to pluck an organic apple from his yard and squeeze the juice right into a bottle, I could choose between buying it and paying the rent.

The sad truth is that I know why organic, locally farmed food is so costly compared to corporate food sources. When cows are fed and slaughtered by the million to make a billion fast-food hamburgers, it is easier to fill them with drugs than it is to keep them clean. Giant agribusiness, with its government subsidies and mass distribution, can deliver a skimmed, ultra-pasteurized, homogenized gallon to me much more cheaply than the natural one from a single Lancaster farmer. The bill for organic, small-scale food is like the bill from the mechanic: parts and labor. I recently wondered why the delicately blue-hued chicken eggs at the Reading Terminal Market farm-stand cost $7.00 a dozen. An employee explained that the beautiful eggs came from a kind of chicken who likes to hide her nest. Somebody has to go find the eggs, and I guess he doesn’t work cheap.

It’s as if chickens scampering free are some kind of wacky new notion, while egg factories made of millions of caged chickens are the traditional source of eggs. Why are produce and meat which have been doused with chemicals called “conventional”? I wish this label was reserved for organic foods. The pesticide-laden monoculture of today’s crops and the filthy crush of factory farming are the things that are new – when did “natural” become the opposite of “conventional” at the grocery store?

In short, if you have a modest grocery budget, look for the packages with thirty ingredients, not three. Avoid fresh ingredients and never buy anything that was raised in your state. Always opt for as many chemicals as possible. If your body doesn’t thank you, your bank account will.

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8 Comments

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  1. It’s really all about economy of scale. More people want the HFCS. Nice and sweet. Believe it or not, it is cheaper to produce HFCS than sugar–but not all that much cheaper. If everyone wanted sugar the price would drop. Most people just don’t care. It tastes good…it’s cheap…what’s to argue?

    Twinkies are yummy. You can never go wrong with twinkies…

    But wait…hold the presses…why would I want blue eggs? And if I did, for whatever reason, couldn’t I just used the leftover dyes from last Easter’s festivities? Now if the *inside* of the eggs were blue…that would be totally awesome. Someone needs to genetically engineer that. I would by ’em by the dozen.

    • Alaina Mabaso May 30, 2011 — 9:00 pm

      Apparently there are people who swear that the flavor of the blue eggs is superior to all others, but there’s no difference we can taste. I certainly am not willing to pay that price for them.

      I actually have never eaten a Twinkie. Something about them scares me. There’s something wrong with a food that never goes bad…

  2. Keep up the good work! Since going vegan we are reading labels like crazy, and our grocery bills are going up too.

    • Alaina Mabaso May 31, 2011 — 6:48 pm

      Funny how things become astronomically expensive as soon as you decide to LIMIT your diet. If I ever went vegan I’d go crazy…couldn’t rule out all food with pepper, MSG, AND animal products….

  3. Economy of scale certainly plays a part, as well as the cheap price of corn. Most food products are now made from corn derivitives. A lot of the ingredients on processed food are simply other ways of saying “corn.” So the purer a product is, the more expensive. We have basically become a nation that exists on engineered food. The deplorable way animals (and fish) are treated compounds the problem. Everyone should know this before they eat that next bite of hamburger or chicken.

  4. Corn subsidies flood the market with corn based products. Oddly enough you can thank presidential politics for this. No one dares question these subsidies since many go to Iowa, the first caucus state.

  5. This blog post has inspired more corn-related comments than I ever could have expected. It’s so true that most of what we eat is simply processed corn that the government subsidizes. Food issues touch so many areas of our lives, including the political realm.

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