28/03/2010 - 6:53 PM

This is supposed to be food for kids?

This fun little news item has made the secondary headlines around the world: In order to find out just how effective the preservatives used in large segments of the U.S. food system actually are Joann Bruso, a Denver area grandmother of eight (who happens to be a trained nutritionist), left an untouched McDonald’s Happy Meal on a shelf in her office for 12 months. After 365 days, the vintage Happy Meal is remarkably well-preserved.

Mrs Bruso, who writes a nutrition blog called BabyBites on children’s food issues, left a McDonald’s Happy Meal on a shelf in her office to observe and blog about as it aged. As she cites in her blog, her husband “worried that when the food began to decompose, there would be a terrible odour in our home. He also worried the food would attract ants and mice.” In fact, the meal did not even attract fungus! It remained on the shelf (as Mrs Bruso admits – the Colorado air is very dry) and just… well it just sat there. It seems that no one wanted it; not the mice (assuming she had mice in her house), not the insects, not even the microfauna; and we feed this to our children?

Economists sometimes use the level of competition for acquiring a given item as a good sign of the value of an item. The more people are willing to compete to get something (demand), the higher the price becomes – and the winner in the competition is usually the individual (or group) willing to exchange or sacrifice the most for it. The same principle applies with most foods. The more intrinsic nutritional value a food has, the greater the competition is to gobble it up before someone else gets to it. We see this in action with fresh fruits, veggies and meats if they are left unprotected. It is not long before insects, microfauna and microflora (fungi and bacteria) and animals munch it down.

Mrs Bruso as well as the host of media that have followed and re-transmitted her story have suggested that the stability of the McHappy Meal’s ingredients after a year of shelf life (at least on first visual appraisal) are signs of their poor nutritional quality. While true in such cases as the fresh fruits, vegetables and meats, in this case, this is an oversimplification of a complex system. If a food’s inhospitableness to bacteria or fungi are indications of its lack of nutritional value, then such stable foods such as cheeses, dried fruit, nuts and honey which are generally unattractive to fungi and bacteria due to their relatively low levels of moisture (and subsequent high concentrations of fats and sugars) should be considered altogether unhealthy. Often, as in this case, the low levels of water present in some foods make them an environment which does not support the growth of fungi, bacteria or or the micro-organisms. The fries in the happy meal are so well cooked that they attain a level of moisture low enough to preserve the potato starch and oil for years. Even the meat in a McHappy Meal, which is cooked to USDA well-done standards of 70ºC at the centre (otherwise known as boot leather), has such low levels of moisture that nothing will live in it. This is the reason for condiments (very high concentrations of sugars and oils) – otherwise the burgers and fries are practically inedible.

If the attractiveness of the food to other animals is an accurate indication of its value, then what is to be said of the millions of rats, racoons, seagulls and bears who gorge themselves regularly on McHappy Meals, Whoppers and french fries in containers behind fast food joints across the world? The fact that Mrs Bruso’s McHappy Meal survived in such excellent condition is more a tribute to her housekeeping skills (no rodents and not enough bugs) and the dry air in Denver than to any thing to do with the nutritional value of the “meal”.

If we seek to argue against these foods, we must rely on solid, logical and thorough arguments that cannot be so easily countermanded as I have just done. Fast food has been sometimes cited as a good value-for-money offering that should be praised (The Gospel of Food by Barry Glassner) for providing disadvantaged and stressed families with food options. We must educate those that we love in the true value of food – a value that cannot simply be calculated on a volume or calorie per dollar basis. Food’s true value combines the life-energy it embodies with the labour of love that it carries from those who grow and prepare it for us. When we reduce its value to a calorie per dollar equation, we devalue all of these important factors. By providing more attractive choices to those we love we will reduce demand, value and economic power of such low-value fast food.

If we want people that we love to resist foods such as the McHappy Meal, we must consistently produce foods that compete favourably with such enhanced and tweaked products. I believe that in order to reduce the power of such food industrials, we must work to make our food better choices truly better. It is our responsibility to provide our families with choices that they will prefer to these engineered experiences. Our reasons for choosing these healthier foods must convince logically, morally and emotionally.

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