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Taste of Tech: Tangled Webs of Health, Purity, and Processed Food

Walmart's Nutrition Charter is nothing new; industrial food has jumped on food system reforms before, with complicated results.

This Taste of Tech post, written by Matthew Battles, is the third in a series exploring the science and technology of food in partnership with Gearfuse, where you can also read about the agricultural practices of amoebae and the way cannibalistic female black widow spiders leave uneaten food in their webs to soothe the fears of potential mates. Don't miss last week's meditation on the Electronic Jelly Tester, the Bostwick Consistometer, and how the instruments we use to measure our food end up redefining it.

Yesterday, Walmart joined First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign to end childhood obesity, announcing a Nutrition Charter promising more nutritious food offerings, lower prices for healthy items, and better information about food products.

For anyone who likes food, the news is ambiguous. On one hand, Walmart's famously efficient distribution system, combined with its matchless market reach, has the power to drive down prices and bring healthy eating options within reach for millions of Americans. On the other hand, advocates of organic foods and good nutrition reasonably worry that in embracing the marketing potential of wholesomeness, Walmart will dilute the meaning of the organic paradigm.

If history is any guide—and history is with us in the kitchen and the market, as Rachel Laudan points out in a Food for Thinkers post—both possibilities are likely to play out in a complex dialectic. This is not the first time Americans have responded to the dangers of a weaponized food supply with a complicated recipe of industrial might and marketing magic. Indeed, much of the problematic apparatus of 21st-century industrialized food, with its murky networks of processing and distribution, has its beginnings in Progressive-era reforms meant to bring healthy, safety, and choice to hungry Americans. Check out this 1951 promotional film from Heinz:


At the very start, the narrator takes a dig at locavores of old: "Before Heinz, most of a housewife's food was seasonal," he intones. "Not only seasonal, but hard to get." Of course, those local foodsheds had long been eclipsed by widely-distributed networks of industrialized food; Henry J. Heinz had made a fortune in the burgeoning food industry of the late nineteenth century. From the stockyard of Chicago to Heinz's big kitchen in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania, post-Civil War food barons turned American palates towards weaponized concoctions in cans, boxes, and jars. As the health toll of chemically-enhanced foods and cheaply-processed meat began to mount, muckraking journalists and Progressive-era reformers responded in a movement that ultimately resulted in the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, which mandated accurate labeling of ingredients and transparency in manufacturing processes.

Heinz had discerned the marketing value of purity and transparency long before—indeed, had embraced literal transparency; the iconic Heinz ketchup bottle, that patented, octagonal prism of glass, was designed to show off the purity and simplicity of the product. Everything about the brand—from the snowy-white wagons to the glass bottles to the folksy, odd insistence on "57 Varieties" (by the time that motto was coined, Heinz was already manufacturing more than 60 products) helped to tame the products of industry and turn them into food. This makes the warehouse images at the end of the film so interesting and ambiguous—all those varieties, all that big-kitchen yumminess, packed up in identical brown boxes. (Andy Warhol, you have a message.)

Heinz got behind the Pure Food and Drug Act, too, endorsing its passage, celebrating wholesome ingredients, and pledging to remove preservatives from his products. Two generations later, as the film points out, those changes offered safer products and healthier choices for consumers and elaborated a technologized network of processing and distribution. Fast-forward another couple of generations, and we're trying to unscramble the omelette of high-tech food. Like Heinz in the early 20th century, Walmart in the early 21st wants to embrace the latest turning in that process; to discern the good effects from the bad will take more than bottles of crystal-clear glass.

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