After traveling abroad this summer and returning home to once again subside on an American diet, I immediately noticed that our most popular processed foods–crackers, chips (even the “healthier” versions), yogurt and cereals–tasted oversweetened and overseasoned to my palate. This was probably because, during my three-week vacation abroad in Paris and Jerusalem, my palate had become accustomed to less processed food. I had never really experienced such a marked difference in flavors on other trips. And I know it’s not just me. Friends of mine visiting from abroad have also noticed these big flavor differences and complained about them, too.
Companies have food chemists who gather focus groups of people like you and me and ask them how they like new product prototypes. Surely, the average American, who’s used to powerful flavor will rate the super-sweet or super-flavorful foods the highest and eschew the blander ones. That’s how we’ve ended up with supermarkets full of products labeled “great new taste,” “flavor gush” and “exploding with flavor.” It seems like every time we open a bag we’re hit with sugar or salt napalm! But see, it takes stepping back about 3,000 miles or so, to notice this.
But think about the simple equation: Extra sugar = extra calories = extra pounds. And, another: Extra salt = extra arterial hardening = cardiovascular disease.
I’m wondering if these big problems are worth that extra flavor that we Americans love so much. You know what? I think I prefer real food (fruits, veggies, whole grains) that nature produced. And I think if more Americans ate these regularly, they would, too. And second, when I do eat something in a package, I think I prefer it to be tasty, but not so powerful that I need a gas mask to finish it.
I know, I know…what can we do about it right now? We can “vote with our forks,” as suburban homesteader and Columbia nutrition professor Joan Gussow would say. When you’re shopping, buy whole foods. And when you have a choice, buy the “lower sugar” or “lower salt” versions of processed foods. When profits go down and shareholders get mad, companies will get the idea.
— Christen Cooper, MS, RD