Editor's Choice

The Snacks Attack Society

Rob Horning
Photo from Webshots.com

Shopping, cooking, eating, washing dishes... it's all such a time-sucking, distracting chore. Best to wrap it all up in plastic and hurry it along, lest lost time eat at you.

I like food. Often I find myself thinking about what I am going to eat, and this does not dismay me or strike me as time wasted. I have even been known to eat on several different occasions on the same day. Imagine that. And not only do I like preparing meals for myself and the people I care about, I enjoy the fact that food has a range of flavors, and sometimes an anticipated meal surprises tasting slightly different than expected. I'm willing to venture that it isn't the worst thing in the world that food sometimes downright sucks, because that serves as a sort of karmic guarantee that sometimes it will be much better than you expected; that horrific plate of $15 pasta today seems to assure that superlative $2 street-vendor souvlaki tomorrow.

But I guess I am increasingly in the minority on this. Judging by the ever-increasing popularity of convenience foods — bags of bite-size snacks, frozen prepared meals, food you can eat with one hand (while your other hand presumably holds the steering wheel or perhaps a cell phone) — most of my fellow New Yorkers don't have the time or inclination to think about, make, or eat food. Luckily for them, industry — always the servant of the consumer — has mobilized to conquer this whole eating nuisance and master it through leveraged gastronomical technologies. If the "food scientists" in pursuit of "snackability" and "mindless munching" have their way, eating for the modern, busy urbanite will become as thoughtless and perfunctory as... breathing.

That's the view of eating — the most basic and vital kind of consumption there is — recently exhibited in Jon Mooallem's article, "Twelve Easy Pieces" (New York Times Magazine, 12 February 2006), which explores the presliced-apple manufacturing business, newly thriving thanks to such aforementioned food scientists. From an apple-seller's point of view, the main problem with unsliced apples is that the commonsense serving size, one apple, is far too apparent, which means you stop when you reach the core of any given Gala or Granny Smith.

Unfortunately, nature had the gall to make it seem, well, "natural" that one would eat an apple and then stop, rather than eating apple after apple mechanically with little thought or enjoyment, as would suit the world's apple growers. And it requires concentration to eat that nefariously inconvenient fruit: you have to consider each bite so that you don't gnaw the stem or end up with a mouth full of seeds. Apples also have the unfortunate tendency to taste different from one another, even if they're the same species. Apples don't always have the same consistency or sweetness; they don't always look uniform; they come in myriad varieties and in varying degrees of ripeness. They reek of the spontaneity of life itself and therefore don't suit the soul-sucking consumer economy too well. A consumer economy thrives on robbing you of your spontaneity and selling it back to you as snacks.

Hence, apple-processing company Crunch Pak's marketing of presliced apples as a snack food, a "healthy" alternative to potato chips that parents can be proud to serve their children, and one they can even enjoy themselves without the hassles of preparation or cleaning up. By making apples less troublesome to consume, Crunch Pak can claim they are liberating consumers to eat more apples, enabling a spontaneous impulse to eat them. Rather than undermine their appeal as a natural food, processing apples into a standardized product presumes to overcome the limitations of nature and perfect the fruit, making it a contemporary lifestyle accoutrement that won't be out of place beside one's cell phone and the portable media player.

From a food manufacturer's point of view, the genius of snacking is that it encourages a method of eating that has nothing to do with hunger, taste, or tactile sensation — like biting and chewing or even thinking of what you're eating. Snacking, as Mooallem points out, is best accomplished with a hypnotic shoveling motion that snack foods are painstakingly engineered to facilitate: "Industry insiders now talk about elevating a food's 'snackability,' which, in short, means engineering it with enough convenience that picking up a piece and putting it in your mouth becomes an almost perfunctory transaction. A snackable food is crumbless and fussless." He notes that according to one marketer he spoke to, "plucking at individualized little pieces of something is just 'more fun' than dealing with a chunkier whole." That assertion seems a bit suspect; as arbitrary as macrobiotics labeling one food yin and another yang. But the implication is clear: what's fun is that which is "fussless". If you are going to have a good time with your food, you shouldn't be so troubled as to actually have to do anything with it — beyond shoveling it in, that is.

But Crunch Pak isn't primarily concerned with making our lives easier (i.e., more activity-free). Convenience purports to mainly benefit consumers, but it's actually a boon to producers, as processed foods allow agribusiness to boost its profit margins astronomically. It's hard to make money selling apples — just ask those orchard owners next time you're at a farmer's market. But selling something that is industrially packaged is a different story. Mooallem cites the example of lettuce, which allows processors to sell a 79 cent head of lettuce for $2.99 when sliced and stuffed into a bag.

So its obvious why these convenience products proliferate; it's less obvious why we consent to use them. The essence of snacking lies in overcoming what were once natural signals of satiety, and experiencing that alienation from our instincts as triumphal. It's a familiar story; how capitalist abundance and affluence leads those fortunate individuals in those societies to lose all sense of deprivation, rationing and true hunger. But in the absence of "true" hunger, they substitute faux hunger: the ravenous and insatiable quest for novelty, luxury, or whatever else is promoted as distinctive and desirable, including "fun" processed foods. As a manager for Nestlé Foods notes in a BusinessWeek article about Russian consumerism said, "As soon as people step out of poverty, they become potential Nestlé customers" ("Russia: Shoppers Gone Wild", 20 February 2006).

Signals of satiety have long ceased to come from nature or our own instincts. Rather, they come from social cues, indications derived from others' behavior that you've had enough. The rituals of the family meal are ground zero for establishing these cues, but they are reiterated in the pervasive and prescriptive discourse of dieting and nutrition. These cues are always open to manipulation: be it by what information your government permits you to see, if you live in, say, China, or by a well-organized private propaganda industry, such as the advertising business. What's more, we are likely to be thankful for the guidance from these institutions rather than to exist with absolutely no parameters. When choices are limited, we are able to be much more decisive, as Barry Schwartz argues in The Paradox of Choice (Ecco, 2004).

In the past, a rigid class structure complemented by sumptuary laws helped establish and naturalize food intake limits, but now Western culture seems preoccupied with the project of naturalizing limitless desires, making endless acquisitiveness a social mandate. If we are told that the promise of capitalism and democracy is fulfilled in the freedom to consume what we choose, and a lot of it, then naturally we will want to cash in on that promise, while ignoring its underbelly, that in such a society one will be ranked by one's consumption volume. We are all required to keep up in our own ways, with information (trivial or otherwise) on the ceaseless 24-hour news cycle, as well as the material things by which others will measure our class status — the cars, clothes, homes and gadgets we display to signal what we've accomplished and to hold on to the rung to which we've climbed.

Perpetual, meaningless snacking — the mandate for which is implied by the pervasiveness of snack foods and the ad-driven celebration of snack time as some delightful vacation from drudgery — exemplifies the loss of constructive limits. When the snacking never ends, the result is not some culinary utopia of sugar highs and greasy goodness but a culture of compulsion. Conveniences such as snacking are alleged to be moments of relief from modern life's stress but in fact they are symptomatic of it. Thus, any increase we experience in leisure also seems to register as an increase in stress rather than the opposite.

Although a study recently conducted by the Boston Fed argues that Americans have experienced an increase in leisure time over the past years, across the board, regardless of income ("Measuring Trends in Leisure: The Allocation of Time Over Five Decades" by Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst), most Americans feel subjectively that they have less, not more, free time, something to which the Families and Work Institute's 2004 report "Overwork in America: When the Way We Work Becomes Too Much" attests. The report suggests that Americans are overwhelmed with information and lose the ability to concentrate. The mentality of snacking encompasses our approach to free time; we make of it a compulsive and repetitive need to consume more without being out to think clearly about what all we are taking in.

In separating work from enjoyment, Americans make leisure a parallel form of work, something that we feel obliged to maximize and fully exploit (the way we are exploited while working). The lust for convenience is a by-product the separation of work and leisure, of the economist's view that work is a "negative utility" that one rationally avoids, rather than a primary source of human satisfaction and meaning. As long as work seems like a hassle, workers will continue to be exploited, driven to perform empty meaningless work (snack jobs?) in the name of their own leisure.

As a post from economist Max Sawicky's blog ("So Much Leisure, So Little Time", 8 February, 2006) explains, "Valuing work — whether it be market or non-market — at the 'opportunity cost' of foregone leisure is the same kind of Trojan horse as the fabled loathsomeness of Adam Smith's poor man's son's toil. It embeds the quality of the activity inside a quantitative black box that tells me it's all the same whether my work is painful or pleasurable or whether my leisure is engaging or tedious.... According to the scheme, I get to choose to optimize my utility but somehow I don't have the option of discerning that I didn't actually have a choice. So, remind me then, how does choice happen in the absence of discernment?" Of course, there is no choice. We feel its perfectly normal to work at something we don't enjoy and then "relax" strenuously to unwind from it.

So the equally frantic pace of both work and leisure seems to warrant on-the-go snack food, but convenience food is part of the problem it purports to solve; it's a self-reinforcing process that sets one on a treadmill of always pursuing more and more timesaving stratagems to "maximize" leisure time. As Mooallem admits, "once the minor hassles of a given food are eliminated, its original version can feel positively insufferable." In other words, efficiency breeds impatience and intolerance.

In a previous article for Harper's Mooallem had analyzed the insane cultural assumptions built into another convenience food, Campbell's Soup-at-Hand, a soup you can eat one-handed, which comes in such improbable and nauseating flavors as "Pizza". ("The Last Supper", July 2005). There he argued how processed, single-serving foods further the disintegration of the eating rituals that once held together communities. Mealtime is one of the fundamental things that unite people; it is emblematic of how human beings have throughout the history of the species cooperated to provide sustenance for each other. It organizes all our rules of etiquette and sets the stage for passing down the very code of civilization, the ingratiating kinds of politeness that have traditionally oriented humans toward pleasing one another rather than conducting a never-ending battle of all against all. Communing over soup, traditionally prepared in large quantities and respected for its curative powers, resonates with a sense of family, of sharing. But Soup-at-Hand is meant to be consumed in a car alone — a depressing fact of too many contemporary lives repackaged as a benefit, reconfiguring stressed-out haste as liberating convenience.

Thus, "convenience" in our foods always implies stress, not its absence. And one convenience, eating or otherwise, always leads to the insatiable need for further conveniences, since convenience always implies that you should be spending no time on the activity we've tried to streamline. Once we stop scheduling time to eat, once we stop treating eating as a kind of daily sacrament, we can never do it fast enough. Adding convenience to one's life is like adding roads to a congested traffic system: the result is more congestion. By adding convenience, we adapt to a new, faster pace, and then need even more convenience. Soon it will be too much trouble for us to squeeze Pizza Soup into our pieholes from a tube, and we'll need something we can snort or receive through a food patch. Eventually, if we're lucky, we'll be able to take in food through our fat asses on specially designed couches and car seats that have transdermal nutrition patches upholstered right onto them.

The chemicals and processing companies behind the pre-sliced apple sincerely believe they are giving us what they want, "a guilt-free snack food". But whenever I eat a snack, I ought to feel guilty. And I should be ashamed every time I get a meal from a drive-through window and eat it at the series of red lights on Northern Boulevard. Until we start feeling guilty about convenience, and a sense of shame about accelerating our lives with no other reason than to accelerate it further, nothing about the direction consumer society is moving will change. It may be inherent to capitalism to produce compliant, self-satisfied consumers who no remorse of valuing time as money and try to hoard it through convenience measures. But all this does is make us always more aware of time, and how it is always slipping away.

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.

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