The Standardized American Diet

Rosie Kissel

An American brand must be, by definition, nationally distributed, uniform in quality, and totally a-seasonal. In the land of plenty, consumers have come to expect nearly all food products, from produce to snack foods, to look, feel, and taste the same – always. This trend towards standardization and generification is evident in both the food we buy at restaurants and the food we buy to prepare at home.

Part of the impetus to standardize restaurant food is attributable to the increasing prevalence of restaurants whose target demographic is working and middle class consumers. As Tracie McMillan describes in her book The American Way of Eating, chain restaurants like Applebee’s rely almost exclusively on pre-sliced, pre-cooked, mix-in ingredients. She refers to the Applebee’s kitchen, where she worked for several months, as an “endless assembly line” that employed the same convenience-cooking methods that home cooks have relied upon since the 1970s.[1] By limiting the prep work that needs to be done onsite, restaurants like Applebee’s save money on cooking equipment, minimize the need for skilled labor, and serve more customers per hour – all of which means lower prices and higher profit margins. Standardization is also in part attributable to the consolidation of the food packing and distribution industries. As McMillan is quick to point out, it is not just fast food joints that rely on food distribution giants like Sysco and U.S. Foods. Roughly 62% of restaurants outsource their sourcing and distribution to external food service corporations.[2] What this means is that even when food is served differently at one restaurant or another, it may have been prepared – cut, seasoned, pre-cooked, and portioned – in the exact same way.

Meals prepared at home have also become largely standardized, as many of us now shy away from cooking and merely assemble meals, à la Applebee’s. Instead of having favorite recipes, we have favorite branded meals – from Bisquick pancakes with Aunt Jemima syrup to Hamburger Helper with Green Giant steamed vegetables on the side. With the introduction of ready-made meals and ingredients, variety has diminished. Thanks to advanced processing methods, faster forms of refrigerated transport, and extensive distribution networks, a family living in rural Washington and a family living in New York City can be eating the exact same Bertolli frozen ravioli and Ragu pasta sauce with Dole pre-sliced romaine lettuce and Newman’s Own Italian dressing any month of the year. In this way, American food has become “divorced from place” in a way that is “democratizing” but also makes food “hollow” of meaning.[3]

As food preparation has moved outside of the home, the significance of particular meals has changed. Because baking a cake no longer needs to be a laborious task and getting French fries is as easy as finding the nearest drive-through, labor and time intensive foods that were once special can now be everyday treats. That is to say, as American food has become standardized and generic, it has also become more indulgent. The ease with which Americans can acquire special-occasion-foods has led food activist Michael Pollan to tout a peculiar form of dietary advice: eat whatever you want, as long as you make it yourself.[4] The logic behind this advice is in part that the process of washing, slicing, and frying potatoes will be enough to deter Americans from eating French fries every day. Pollan also claims that in making food yourself, you gain control over how much salt, sugar, and fat you include and thus can eat more healthily.

One might point to the plethora of small mom-and-pop food brands that are shoving commodity snacks off of the shelves and argue that American food was standardized, but it certainly won’t be in the future. However, these popular artisan, “small batch” health foods are in some ways just a wolf in (locally raised, chemical-free, hand-spun) clothing. Even as smaller brands proliferate, the most successful are plucked off and acquired by entrenched corporations.[5] Larger companies like General Mills and Campbell’s Soup have even started their own venture capital firms to help them determine which up-and-coming food businesses should be scooped up next. Whether this trend means small companies are “selling out” or larger corporations are “buying in” is not particularly important.[6] What is significant is that when smaller companies are acquired or work with a large venture capital firm, they almost inevitably get fed into national purchasing and distribution networks. This means that without an intentional move away from corporate consolidation, the standardized American diet will persist.

Standardized convenience foods are, in many ways, a legacy of the American dream. Being able to eat food that someone else prepared is a quintessential part of the American vision of wealth, independence, and autonomy. In her discussion of gender, class, and Jell-O, Kathleen LeBesco explores the notion that Americans “forge their identity around consumption of commodities.”[7] By contrasting the ways in which different generations interacted with it, Le Besco charts Jell-O’s decline from a middle class treat to a mark of “unsophistication.”[8] Clearly, something has changed since the heydays of Jell-O. Now, convenience food must be disguised to be worthy of the middle class. However, as long as it’s served on a real plate with the appropriate accouterment of made-from-scratch-cooking, even microwaved, pre-seasoned potatoes at Applebee’s can be part of the American dream.

Answering the question of whether standardization and generification represent a positive or negative force in the American food system requires some historical perspective and consideration for the diurnal trials of working-class American life. There was a time when standardization was the hallmark of industrial progress. The passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act in 1906, which laid the legislative groundwork for the formation of the Food and Drug Administration, cracked down on the interstate sale of mislabeled or adulterated foods.[9] This act and subsequent enforcement undoubtedly improved the lives of many Americans who no longer had to question the trustworthiness of the flour or milk they used to feed their families. In recent years, however, the practical aspect of standardization, namely, the peace of mind it gives consumers, has been far overshadowed by its cultural meaning.

McMillan emphasizes the emotional and social significance of eating out at a restaurant like Applebee’s. As she reminds her readers, going out for a meal that one does not have to prepare or clean up after is a “cultural experience” that allows working and lower-middle class Americans to enjoy, if just for a night, part of the “twentieth-century American dream.”[10] McMillan also claims that convenience foods perform essential work in reducing the stress (often imposed on female caregivers) associated with meal preparation. “The real convenience behind these convenience foods,” she writes, “isn’t time or money, but that they removed one more bit of stress from our day (212).” The fact that standardized food removes much of the thought – and thus stress – associated with preparing meals, combined with the corporate preference for consolidated food processing and distribution, has led to the standardization of the American diet. Reversing this trend would require a major shift not only in what Americans expect of their food system, but also in the very structure of the American economy.

Image Credit: Bachmann, “Factory Automation Robotics Palettizing Bread.” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Factory_Automation_Robotics_Palettizing_Bread.jpg

[1] McMillan, The American Way of Eating, 210.

[2] McMillan, The American Way of Eating, 207.

[3] Meltzer, Jourdan, “What is American Food.” Pinterest. 2017. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/486811040958732731/

[4] “Michael Pollan on Cooking.” January 14th, 2014. RSA. Accessed April 25th, 2017, https://www.thersa.org/discover/videos/rsa-shorts/2014/01/rsa-shorts—how-cooking-can-change-your-life.

[5] “As tastes shift, Big Food devours smaller, health-focused companies to survive.” May 13th, 2016. Chicago Tribune. Accessed April 25th, 2017, http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-big-food-gobbles-small-companies-0515-biz-20160514-story.html.

[6] Gina Asoudegan, the “Senior Director of Mission” Applegate, a natural and organic meats company, theorized the difference between buying in and selling out at a grassfed beef conference in April of 2017. She was specifically referencing the fact that Hormel (an multinational food corporation) had purchased Applegate in 2015.

[7] Le Besco, Cooking Lessons: The Politics of Gender and Food, 134.

[8] Le Besco, Cooking Lessons: The Politics of Gender and Food, 134.

[9] “History.” Updated March 23rd, 2015. USFDA. Accessed April 25th, 2017, https://www.fda.gov/aboutFDA/WhatWeDo/History/.

[10] McMillan, The American Way of Eating, 198.