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Is Technology a Friend or Foe to Food?

This column also appears in today's Food section.

PH2009090100824.jpgNora Ephron's "Julie & Julia" has plunged us deep into a bout of Julia Child nostalgia. And what could be more delightful, or delicious? The movie has grossed more than $60 million -- not bad for a flick about a cookbook author and a blogger. Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" sits atop the New York Times bestseller list for the first time in the book's 48-year history. Millions are discovering her painstaking approach to cuisine for the first time. Bon appetit!

But as so often happens with nostalgia, the past is being massaged to fit the needs of the present. In the movie, Amy Adams, playing blogger Julie Powell, tries to explain the importance of Child to her husband. "She changed everything," Powell says. "Before her, it was frozen food and can openers and marshmallows." And after her? Most of us have all three in our kitchens. And no rendered beef tallow in our freezer.

"I felt like jumping up in my seat in the movie and saying, 'No, no, no!' " says Laura Shapiro, author of "Julia Child: A Life." "There were things that came in cans she liked just fine, like chicken broth. She dubbed Uncle Ben's rice 'l'Oncle Ben's.' " Child adored supermarkets and admired McDonald's. She thought premade pie crust a wonderful invention and was supportive of irradiating food for safety. Cooking, for her, was not in conflict with progress. Rather it was, or could be, in partnership with it.

Some of Child's successors, however, have a more tortured relationship with the march of culinary technology. They survey the landscape and see little but high-fructose corn syrup and drive-through windows. If that's progress, they'll take the past. And there's some evidence to support that position. A 2003 study by economists David Cutler, Ed Glaeser and Jesse Shapiro found that the rise in obesity over the past few decades could not be explained simply by food becoming cheaper or people consuming more meals in restaurants. It was the result of technological achievement.

The major differences in caloric intake aren't due to larger meals. (In fact, there's some evidence that we're eating less at dinner than we used to.) The problem is we're taking in more calories between meals, a direct consequence of technological innovation spurring the production of calorie-dense, long-lasting, shelf-stable foods. In 1977, Americans reported eating about 186 calories between meals. By 1994, that had rocketed to 346 calories. That difference alone is enough to explain the changes in our national waistline.

A century ago, getting dinner was a pretty simple affair: The wife cooked and the rest of the family ate. Those dinners, like today's, were often big. But before the rise of vending machines and food preservation technology, snacks were harder to come by. If you wanted potato chips, you had to make them at home. No one had time for that, so fairly few people ate potato chips. The same went for many other foods. You ate what you made, or what a restaurant's kitchen made. So you tended to eat at mealtimes.

But technology moved forward: Manufacturers became able to manipulate the gaseous environment in which foods are stored, increasing their longevity. Hydrogen-peroxide sterilization protects foods from harmful microorganisms. Flavor-barrier technology keeps the chemical taste of packaging from leaching into food. Add to that list deep freezers, microwaves, polyethylene plastics and even drive-through windows. All provided easy access to foods that, a generation before, would have taken hours or even days to prepare.

Surveying this landscape, many observers adopt a sort of "back-to-the-land" approach. Michael Pollan recently argued in the New York Times Magazine that people should cease eating any food that wasn't prepared in their kitchen. "The time and work involved in cooking, as well as the delay in gratification built into the process, served as an important check on our appetite," Pollan wrote. "Now that check is gone, and we're struggling to deal with the consequences."

But Cutler isn't so sure that the problems caused by the lower "time costs" should be solved by trying to make people spend more time in the kitchen. "If your tire has a hole," he says, "the best way to repair the tire is not to put air back in the hole. Just because you discovered what was wrong doesn't mean that addressing that thing is the best way to do it." The gift of time, he says, is not to be returned lightly. That's time for kids, for hobbies, for work and for pleasure. That's time that has allowed more women to enter the workforce and parents to spend hours helping with homework.

Child had an intuitive sense of that, and her later career reflected it. "Julia never begrudged time spent in the kitchen, because she thought it was the most wonderful way you could spend time," says Shapiro, "but she knew people were not going to do that. Her television career started with this very high level of French cooking, but she quickly moved on to simpler, more-straightforward things. By the time you get to her book 'The Way to Cook,' it's about how to use leftovers and so forth. It's very realistic."

Cooking can't survive as a rebuke to modernity or technology. Indeed, it's worth asking whether the same forces that have so profoundly transformed our eating habits can change them again -- for the better.

"A lot of the technological advances, at least to this point, have been preservatives that will allow you to put potato chips in bags and ship them," says Cutler. They have cut the time cost of things we don't cook rather than things we do, and of things that aren't healthful rather than things that are. But they could do the reverse.

You see some of that already: organic frozen dinners, food processors and freezers. You can easily imagine a diet that takes place entirely in the kitchen, de-emphasizes snacking and doesn't involve much more time: Things are reheated, vegetables are precut, sauces are premade, cans of chicken broth are frequently opened and Uncle Ben's rice is a constant companion.

It's not the most delicious future imaginable, but it is one in which people are back in the kitchen, playing a direct role in the construction of their meals and getting comfortable with cookware. Making Hamburger Helper is a lot closer to cooking than going to McDonald's. And the more demand there is for technologies that make cooking more accessible and less time-consuming, the more technologies there will be to do just that.

That's not, of course, a future that many of cooking's most eloquent advocates are very comfortable with. But it may be the best we can do. If there is to be a war between cooking and technology, it seems likely that cooking will lose. Looking for rapprochement now may be better than surrendering later.

Photo credit: Jonathan Wenk.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 2, 2009; 12:34 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
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"They have cut the time cost of things we don't cook rather than things we do, and of things that aren't healthful rather than things that are. But they could do the reverse."

And like you say, they're already doing so in some quarters. I'm a big fan of a lot of Trader Joe's frozen entrees and stir-fry meals, which are reasonably healthy and are a hell of a lot easier than putting together a stir-fry myself, especially with the Two Year Old underfoot.

But the best diet advice I've ever gotten, Ezra, is a video you linked to when you were still at TAP. I believe the title was "Eat More Plants." That was certainly the basic idea, and in my experience, at least, it's a very effective weight-control program.

I've lost the link, so if there's any chance you could include it in a tab dump sometime, I'd be grateful.

Posted by: rt42 | September 2, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

You have some things right, of course. But to blame the obesity epidemic simply on eating too much between meals is much too simplistic. It's the old "gluttony or sloth" argument.

As Dr. Robert Lustig argued in a recent lecture, "We even have an epidemic of obese 6-month olds (Kim Obesity 15:1107, 2006)...So any hypothesis that attempts to explain the obesity epidemic must be able to explain this as well."

I don't think the 6-month-olds are doing a lot of in-between meals eating.

Posted by: sbguy | September 2, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

What I'd like to see is somebody actually check if the "time to prepare" generally relates to calories/fat or what-have-you in foods.

If that's the case... as I believe Pollan is implying... then problem with prepared foods is not so much snacking, but that high calorie/fat food is no longer "special" and gets eaten all the time.

While I would agree that expecting modern people to suddenly spend a lot more time preparing food is somewhat foolish... I'm not sure I believe "high quality" prepared foods from Trader Joes and Whole Foods are necessarily much better for you than McDonalds.

Posted by: JWHamner | September 2, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

As important as the preservation technology is, transportation and supply chain management has been equally important. Speed of delivery is just as important for getting out of season tomatoes throughout the US or getting New Zealand lamb at a lower carbon cost than from domestic sources. And it has been just as problematic. Now most supermarkets have the same things, year round and every day people eat the same comfort food throughout the country.

But unfortunately my apartment has run out of room for the amazing food technology that only allows me to cook more interesting things. My fridge is filled with vegetables in bags that keep them good for longer and my drawers are filled silicon headed implements that don't melt or conduct heat at broiler temperatures. We don't need Child's omelet instructions anymore because we have non-stick pans.

Posted by: tmorgan2 | September 2, 2009 3:54 PM | Report abuse

When you say, "calorie-dense, long-lasting, shelf-stable foods," that's a euphemistic description of what most of those foods are, which is low-fat, high-refined carbohydrate foods. When the low-fat craze started in the 70s, the manufacturers realized quickly that if you take the fat out of food, it tastes like cardboard, so they added sugar back in to make it palatable.

(I remember reading an article about food scientists at the University of Minnesota in the 70s talking about how it was smart to add sugar to turkey, because it would cause people to eat more wonderful low-fat turkey. I thought then this was insane, and I still do.)

Not only did it make it palatable, though, it made it pretty much addictive, because sweet things overcome our satiety messages. If you're offered more steak at the end of a big meal, it won't appeal to you. But ice cream or cake? No problem.

A similar thing happens with liquid calories. If we eat 150 calories of sugar from hard candy, we generally compensate by eating 150 calories less of other calories that day. But if we get those 150 calories in the form of sugary soda, we don't compensate, and they are just extra calories.

So really, it mostly comes down to sugars, in whatever form, and particularly fructose. Add the calories to the hormonal effects of sugar, which cause your body to store fat, and you have an obesity epidemic. (We eat pretty much the same number of fat calories as we consumed in 1970--it ain't the fat.)

Posted by: sbguy | September 2, 2009 4:30 PM | Report abuse

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