While waiting for a flight to Denver in the Kansas City International Airport, I walked by several shops selling magazines, newspapers, gifts and snacks. Though there were some Paleo options, like walnuts or almonds, the snacks that were sold in these shops were predominantly industrial. As I passed a variety of processed candies, a bag of brightly-colored gummy worms caught my eye, and I began to consider the use of food in America.
These gummy worms weren't what I’d call real food. Were I to eat them, their sugars would cause my mood to swing - first to euphoric heights, and then crashing down toward grim reality. Their artificial flavors and food additives would also, after leaving a bad taste in my mouth, doubtlessly give me a headache. And, since I hadn’t eaten anything like them in a while, they’d probably make my stomach hurt.
But if these gummies are going to give me so much trouble, I wondered, then why do they even exist?
The Thursday after my flight arrived in Colorado we had a family dinner. My brother, a twenty-two year old in his last year of college, brought over two of his friends, Dave and Sarah, a young couple who worked in a restaurant downtown. The mood was festive. (Later, as we washed the dishes, my father commented that, “It felt like Christmas dinner.”)
My mother had roasted a turkey and sweet potatoes, and had also prepared a salad of lettuce with blackberries and dried cranberries. It was all very Paleo, except for the sugar cookies that were set on a platter in the center of the table. Mom had made them that afternoon, using a cookie cutter to shape them into Christmas trees and stars, which she had then covered with icing and sprinkles.
“Those aren’t Paleo,” my youngest brother, a precocious twelve-year-old, remarked as I took a Christmas tree from the platter.
“Oh, I’m aware of that,” I replied.
“What’s Paleo?” asked Dave.
My dad went from highlighting the basics of the diet to outlining its evolutionary rationale, and then he touched briefly upon the historical evidence that demonstrated its benefits, all while I pondered my Christmas cookie.
“The advantage industrial foods have over Paleo foods,” I said as my father finished, “is that industrial foods can be more than just food.” I held up my Christmas tree. “This cookie isn’t just food - it’s a symbol. When I eat it, I’m not just eating - I’m partaking in a ritual.”
My comment caused an uproar. “That’s just the dopamine talking,” my dad said, dismissing my statement as the result of the sugar from the cookie, which was coursing through my bloodstream at that moment.
“Processed foods have an edge that Paleo foods lack,” I continued, undeterred. “They can be more than just sustenance. You eat Paleo foods because they give you the nutrients you need. But the reason industrial foods flourish in our culture is because they do more than just nourish. When you’re bored, industrial foods entertain – think of the fun shapes they can take, from animal crackers to alphabet soup. When you’re sluggish, industrial foods provide you with a boost, whether as a caffeinated beverage or a sugary treat. And when you need comfort, industrial foods offer a variety of meals to make you feel better.”
“Like grilled cheese and tomato soup,” my mom added, citing her favorite.
But my father was distressed. “Would you put honey in the tank of your car?” he asked.
“I’m not defending industrial foods,” I explained.
“Well, it sounds like you are,” my college-aged brother replied.
“No, I’m trying to describe their uses beyond sustenance.”
“Oh,” my brother rolled his eyes, “well, your tone suggested otherwise.”
“When you eat Paleo foods, it’s clear that you’re feeding yourself. But when you eat industrial foods, you don’t always feel satisfied. This lack of satisfaction leaves room for these foods to serve other functions.”
“Like entertainment, excitement, and comfort,” my brother added, counting the uses on his hand.
“People have come to need these things,” I concluded. “So when you ask them to go Paleo, suddenly they’re eating for sustenance alone. Where will they get their entertainment, excitement, and comfort from now?”
“They can attend Paleo gatherings," my father answered, "and ask the people there what they do.”
“But that’s not a solution,” I replied. “That’s asking someone else for one.” I described my conception of culture as a web of interconnected people, and that when one person changed their habits, that alteration rippled through everyone. “Which leads me to believe that the components of culture are linked together, each taking part in the formation of the other.”
Then I went overboard, and said that if people started eating Paleo, contemporary life would become impossible. “Industrial foods make a sedentary existence bearable. The food coma they put you in keeps you just aware enough to perform the tasks that you’re assigned. Any more energy, and you couldn’t bear to be seated all day.” I wanted to express that the activities filling our schedules influenced our dietary choices, and that our dietary choices influenced the activities that we engaged in daily. Behind this was a vision of a culture transformed by Paleo, where people ate well and then filled their lives with pursuits that nourished both their hearts and minds.
But, as often happens at holiday dinners, the words just didn’t come out right.