GUY RAZ, HOST:
OK, so fruits and vegetables in every corner in Todmorden - that's real food, right? But the problem is that in most modern supermarkets, especially in America, that is not what we eat.
MARK BITTMAN: You know, it sort of depends how you define things, but I would say a minimum of 40 percent of the - of the stuff in American supermarkets wouldn't really qualify as food by the dictionary definition.
RAZ: Wait, 40 percent wouldn't qualify as food?
BITTMAN: Well, if you think of food - food - the definition of food is something that sustains and nourishes.
BITTMAN: And the definition of nourishment is something that increases your health. So if something is not increasing your health but making you ill, it doesn't really meet the dictionary definition of food.
RAZ: This is food writer and cookbook author Mark Bittman. His most famous cookbook - actually, one of the best selling of all time - is simply called "How To Cook Everything." Do people hug you in airports?
BITTMAN: (Laughter). It's happened.
RAZ: It's happened.
BITTMAN: Not often, but yeah, it's happened.
RAZ: Anyway, Mark says that most of what we eat today isn't real food, but it wasn't always like that. Here's Mark Bittman on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
BITTMAN: A hundred years ago, guess what? Everyone was a locavore. Every family had a cook - usually a mom. And those moms bought and prepared food. It was like your romantic vision of Europe. There was no snack food. And until the '20s, until Clarence Birdseye came along, there was no frozen food. Margarine didn't exist. In fact, when margarine was invented, several states passed laws declaring that it had to be dyed pink, so we'd all know that it was a fake. There were no restaurant chains. Eating ethnic was unheard of, unless you were ethnic.
Back in those days, there was no philosophy of food. You just ate. You didn't claim to be anything. Fats, carbs, proteins - they weren't bad or good. They were food. You ate food. Hardly anything contained more than one ingredient because it was an ingredient. The corn flake hadn't been invented. The Pop Tart, the Pringle, Cheese Whiz, none of that stuff. Goldfish swam. And, again, everyone ate local. In New York, an orange was a common Christmas present because it came all the way from Florida. From the '30s on, road systems expanded. Trucks took the place of railroads. Fresh food began to travel more. Oranges became common in New York.
The South and West became agricultural hubs and in other parts of the country suburbs took over farmland. The effects of this are well-known They're everywhere. And the death of family farms is part of this puzzle as is almost everything - from the demise of the real community to the challenge of finding a good tomato even in summer. Eventually, California produced too much food to ship fresh, so it became critical to market canned and frozen foods. Thus arrived convenience. It was sold to pro-feminist housewives as a way to cut down on housework, but it cut down on the variety of food we ate as well. Many of us grew up never eating a fresh vegetable. I, for one - and I'm not kidding - didn't eat real spinach or broccoli 'til I was 19. Who needed it though? Meat was everywhere. What could be easier, more filling or healthier for your family than broiling a steak? But by then, cattle were already raised unnaturally. Rather than spending their lives eating grass for which their stomachs were designed, they were forced to eat soy and corn. They have trouble digesting those grains, of course, but that wasn't a problem for producers. Thanks to farm subsidies, a fine collaboration between agribusiness and Congress, soy corn and cattle became king, and chicken soon joined them on the throne.
RAZ: Mark Bittman - he'll be back in just a minute to explain why those foods have stayed so dominant for so long and why our relationship to food could be on the brink of another big change. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And today on the show, Ideas About Food, our connection to it and its power to change so much about the way we live. I just bought a bottle of water and on the label it said gluten free.
BITTMAN: Interesting. Well, and it is.
RAZ: This is food writer Mark Bittman.
BITTMAN: Truth in advertising.
RAZ: And Mark's been describing how over the past 50 years, corn and soy and wheat have become staples of the Western diet.
BITTMAN: One thing led to another, corn and wheat and soy were easy to trade and easy to ship and easy to sell and easy to process. And the government, through direct and indirect subsidies, encouraged the growth of what we now call monocropping, which means really, really big fields of hundreds and hundreds of acres at a time planted in one crop in endless rows that are all cultivated and harvested mechanically.
But if you look in the late 19th, early 20th century, what was being grown in Iowa - Iowa was, I think, the country's biggest or second-biggest producer of tomatoes. It was a huge producer of apples. I mean, this is a place where almost anything can be grown. And now, I was just in Iowa, and again you can't believe the drive through miles and miles of corn and soybeans. And it's nothing else but corn and soybeans. Once you have that stuff, you have to figure out what to do with it.
BITTMAN: So now, you know, the principal uses of those two crops are animal feed, biofuels - ethanol - and then corn and soy oils for frying and highly-processed food made out of corn and soy.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
BITTMAN: So we've got the beginning of the heyday of value-added food, which contained as many soy and corn products as could be crammed into it. Home cooking remained the norm, but its quality was down the tubes. There were fewer meals with home-cooked breads, desserts and soups because all of them could be bought at any store - not that they are any good, but they were there.
Most moms cooked like mine, a piece of broiled meat, a quickly-made salad with bottle dressing, canned soup, canned fruit salad, maybe baked or mashed potatoes or perhaps the stupidest food ever - minute rice. For dessert, store-bought ice cream or cookies. My mom is not here, so I can say this now. This kind of cooking drove me to learn how to cook for myself. It wasn't all bad.
By the '70s, forward-thinking people began to recognize the value of local ingredients. We tended gardens. We became interested in organic food. We knew or we were vegetarians. We weren't all hippies either. Some of us were eating in good restaurants and learning how to cook well. Meanwhile, food production had become industrial - industrial.
Sadly, it was at this time that the family dinner was put in a coma, if not actually killed. By the '70s, home cooking was in such a sad state that the high fat and spice contents of foods like McNuggets and Hot Pockets - and we all have our favorite, actually - made this stuff more appealing than the bland things that people were serving at home. At the same time, masses of women were entering the workforce, and cooking simply wasn't important enough for men to share the burden.
So now you got your pizza nights, you got your microwave nights, you got your grazing nights, you got your fend-for-yourself nights and so on. Leading the way - what's leading the way? Meat, junk food, cheese, the very stuff that will kill you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Yeah. And I mean, like, what you were saying earlier, a lot of that has to do with the fact that, like, today we ship food all over the world, right?
BITTMAN: You know, I think part of the problem is - and this can go back to cooking because one of the problems with the way that we think about food right now is that we expect to have any food we want within minutes. If you want a mango, you're going to be able to get a mango. If you want a tomato, you're going to be able to get a tomato.
Well, that is really not sustainable. So if we start thinking more seasonally, if we start cooking at home more with ingredients that are - I think appropriate might be the right word - and I'm talking about more root vegetables in winter - beets, turnips and potatoes and so on - we're really eating much more in tune with what nature is offering us. And what nature is offering us is abundant. It's just not everything.
RAZ: So, I mean, you are an omnivore. You eat everything, but you - you are a guy that a lot of people are going to look and say, OK, well, you've written all these books. You are a food - you - like, I think of Mark Bittman and food. And so we want to know what we should kind of eat.
BITTMAN: Well, I do think - you know, I did this book called "VB6," vegan before 6, a few years ago. And basically, it's a strategy to eat more plants by saying, let's be very strictly vegan until dinnertime and then do whatever. But, you know, I think that the rules are very, very simple. I think the rules are, one, define what food is and often it's things that don't have labels. And, you know, a head of broccoli doesn't need a label because it's a head of broccoli. We know what's in broccoli. Define what food is, eat only that. And then within that category, eat as many plants as you can - (laughter) as you can stand to eat. That's it.
BITTMAN: Within those rules, you eat what you like to eat and you're going to have a good diet.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
BITTMAN: Overconsumption of animals and, of course, junk food is the problem, along with our paltry consumption of plants. Now, there's no time to get into the benefits of eating plants here. But the evidence is that plants - and I want to make this clear - it's not the ingredients in plants, it's the plants. It's not the beta-Carotene, it's the carrot. The evidence is very clear that plants promote health. This evidence is overwhelming at this point. You eat more plants, you eat less other stuff, you live longer - not bad.
But back to animals and junk food. We don't need either of them for health. Both have been marketed heavily, creating unnatural demand. We're not born craving Whoppers or Skittles. We have to take matters into our own hands, not only by advocating for a better diet for everyone - that's the hard part - but by improving our own. And that happens to be quite easy. It's a simple formula. Eat food. Eat real food. We can continue to enjoy our food. And we can continue to spin yarns about our favorite meals. We'll reduce not only calories, but our carbon footprint. We can make food more important, not less, and save ourselves by doing so. We have to choose that path. Thank you.
RAZ: Food writer Mark Bittman. You can see his entire talk at ted.com.
Well, I know you have to leave, Mark, so thank you...
BITTMAN: Thank you.
RAZ: ...For doing this. And I tell you, the one - one of the things I really miss being paleo now for the next - who knows how long - is a great recipe that you put out years ago. It was a pasta. It's, I think, spaghetti, sardines, breadcrumbs - right? - chiles.
BITTMAN: Well, I was just talking about that, yeah.
RAZ: It's a great use of sardines, a great...
BITTMAN: How can you not eat pasta, what the hell?
RAZ: I know. I - well, you can get sweet potato pasta, which is...
BITTMAN: Oh, geez, come on.
BITTMAN: I don't think pasta's going to kill you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.