Thursday, May 30, 2013

"Food: Transforming the American Table"

Last weekend I was at the National Museum of American History where I toured the new exhibition  "FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000," which attempts to depict some of the major changes in food production, preparation, and consumption in the United States over the past half century.

The exhibit's website explains that "the public will be invited to take a seat at a large, communal table in the center of the exhibition to share their own thoughts and experiences about food and change in America." The irony, of course, is that the exhibit portrays all the reasons why a communal table isn't necessarily the best symbol for American meals anymore.

But as I strolled through the exhibit, two things really struck me. First, I was curious as to why the focus was only on 1950-2000. This was certainly a period of rapid change within the American food system and particularly with consumer preferences, but I couldn't help but get the sense that the exhibit was trying to convey this transformation as inevitable. Basically that "as a growing, industrialized country, the natural progression (i.e. transformation as the exhibit title says) is towards a system of abundance, convenience, and processed food."

The framing reminded me of a 2011 TED talk by Mehmood Khan, the chief executive officer of PepsiCo's Global Nutrition Group and it's chief scientific officer. His basic argument is that to feed a growing global population, we need food processing. I found it quite a coincidence that when I left the exhibit and took a look at the sign recognizing its primary sponsors, the Land o'Lakes Foundation was listed right there at the top.

I was recently in a media workshop where the facilitator made the important point to distinguish between the facts and the truth. I won't argue with the facts that were presented in the exhibit, but it's important to remember how they are presented.

Which leads me to my second point (and related to twisting the facts). The exhibit was full of fascinating food marketing and advertising.

Consider these two LIFE magazine covers from 1955 and 1962. What I find most interesting is the second of these two covers that prominently features fresh fruit and vegetables with the title "Bounty of Food." The irony of this, of course, is that though we'd certainly characterize the American food system as plentiful, there isn't necessarily a bounty of nutritious foods, like fruits and vegetables. Instead, and in part due to subsidies that incentive production of crops like corn, wheat, and soy, we see a bounty of processed food very different than what's depicted on the cover.

And here's an example of an advertisement for diet soda. It's fascinating to see how current advertising around diet and low calorie soda hasn't really changed all that much. Sure it may only have a few calories, but many diet sodas contain ingredients that really fly under the radar with consumers, including the artificial sweetener aspartame. Aspartame has been shown to cause migraines and a variety of other effects on health. This, of course, often goes unnoticed with a sole focus on calories.

This final picture I found fascinating and mostly because I'm currently in the middle of Waterlogged by Tim Noakes, which really debunks many of the common beliefs and assumptions of hydration. One of his main conclusions (which I won't talk about too much - the subject of a future blog post) is that dehydration isn't actually a bad thing if you're talking about endurance performance. Specifically, there have been countless studies showing a close relationship between change in body weight (i.e. level of dehydration through water loss) and performance. Those who had the highest percent change in body weight were those who performed best. Unfortunately, we've seen companies that produce sports drinks do a very good job of convincing us otherwise.

Overall, I was glad to see the museum take on the issue of food in the United States. Our food system has changed quite dramatically and over a relatively short period of time, and I thoroughly enjoyed how some of these changes were presented. There are some interesting pieces related to local food movements, in particular, that were certainly worth taking a look at. Oh, and if you're a fan of Julia Child, her kitchen that is on display is a big hit.

So, if you're around the National Mall anytime soon, I certainly recommend making a stop in to tour the exhibit.

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