Friday, April 16, 2010

The Senses: Not Just a Matter of Taste

I've posted about taste before. Writing about the spices we use in our foods. Spices are just the additions to what we eat. From a nutritional point of view they have almost no value. The bulk of our nutrition comes from the staple foods that make up our diet.

What we eat now and how our collective diets have changed over time is a fascinating topic. Many issues that we face are tied to what we eat. There is controversy at the moment as to whether or not corn sweeteners are a cause of the "obesity epidemic". People are also worried about sustainability and the food we eat. There are many issues concerning our eating habits.

Policy and planning decisions are better informed when there is a way to look into the details of what we eat. Especially when we can see trends over time.

There are resources that have some of these details. The US Department of Agriculture publishes a periodical appropriately named Amber Waves and in the March 2010 issue there is an article looking at the last 100 years of food availability data from the Economic Research Service. Tracking a Century of American Eating gives an overview of the wealth of data that's been collected.

The trends dramatically show how dietary habits have changed. For example:
  • In 1910 only 12% of fruit consumed was processed. In 2008 that increased to 49% of all fruit. At the same time the number of pounds of fruit per person per year increased from 177 to 251. Who says we aren't eating our fruit.
  • The growth in the amount of cheese consumed per capita has increased dramatically. From 11.4 pounds per person per year in 1970 to over 31 pounds in 2008.
  • Chicken consumption has almost risen above beef consumption. Chicken is so cheap and plentiful that it's difficult to understand that it was a luxury item before factory farms and modern agriculture. "A chicken in every pot" was a promise of better times. Now chicken is not considered anything special. It's a staple.
A slightly more detailed look at the last 100 years of food data in the US was written up in 2000 in another USDA periodical - Food Review. The dryly named Major Trends in U.S. Food Supply, 1909-1999 (pdf) is not a description of changing food habits. Instead it is a collection of graphs. From the drop in the percentage of disposable income spent on food (from 24% down to under 12%), to a comparison of the decline of milk drinking and the increase in soda consumption, the graphs can start endless discussions.

What conclusions do the number present? What changed? Which trends are positive and which are negative? Food consumption has changed radically, is there any way of influencing and altering the trends moving forward? The discussions can go on ad infinitum.

If an overview isn't enough the USDA has created a website of the Data Sets where you can chart, compare, and download the Information on Food Availability and other topics to analyze yourself.

Of course even with all this information at our disposal there will still be disagreements about what we should do concerning food. But I'd rather have an informed discussion where we disagree on what the numbers mean than an uninformed one where we can't even agree on the numbers.

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