FOR AT LEAST a century, Americans have been hooked on convenience in the kitchen. They've bought foods with greater amounts of the preparation already done for them. "The American housewife," lamented home economist Christine Frederick in the 1920s, "is no longer a cook -- she is a can opener." Today, homemakers have traded in their can openers for microwaves, into Alan B.Durningwhich they can pop a bewildering selection of complete, ready-to-eat meals.
It's an axiom of the food industry that more preparation means higher profits. The cut that food processors, packagers, marketers and distributors take from each dollar consumers spend on food has been rising since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began keeping records in 1950. From 59 cents then, it has reached 75 cents today, leaving just a quarter for farmers.
On the way to convenient food, healthy fare has gone out the window. People eat fewer potatoes and more french fries, less bread and more pastries, less chicken soup and more chicken nuggets. The typical American ingests 48 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup annually -- most of it in soft drinks. All told, Americans consumed their body weight in sweeteners and salt last year.
Eating the American way bucks almost every nutritional recommendation. It's high in calories but low in fiber, high in fat but low in complex carbohydrates, high in salt but low in vitamins. The consequences stand out starkly in the country's leading causes of death -- heart disease, stroke and cancer -- all of which are strongly linked to diet.
The environmental toll is equally mammoth. The United States tTC devotes about 4 percent of its energy to packaging food, almost as much as American agriculture uses to grow the food, according to Cornell University's David Pimentel, a food energy analyst. That's almost as much energy as comes through the Alaskan oil pipeline.
Food packaging also absorbs colossal quantities of metal, glass, paper, cardboard and plastic and accounts for about 20 percent of the nation's tonnage of municipal solid waste, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That's 36 million tons of food packaging junk a year -- or 290 pounds per person.
No one can argue with wrapping items to prevent them from spoiling, but much food packaging is excessive. Does anyone need soda crackers, butter or jelly portioned into hermetically sealed, single-serving packages? Why are tomatoes and green peppers that last a week sold in foam and plastic trays that last a century? Such profligacy pushes the national food packaging bill to $35 billion, or 8.5 cents of every dollar Americans spend on food.
In beverages as in food, packaging is a major environmental concern. Despite rising interest in recycling, U.S. consumers toss about 1.5 million polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles an hour. Three-quarters of the glass made in America goes into single-use bottles and jars.
Fast food is another waste monger. McDonald's -- the only fast food chain environmentally conscious enough to take a serious look at its use of materials -- generates about 300 pounds of trash every day at each of its 8,500 U.S. restaurants, most of it paper and cardboard packaging. The Department of Agriculture tallies about 130,000 "quick-service" restaurants nationwide. At 300 pounds a day, that's a lot of trees.
The United States was the first country to attempt to nourish itself on a regimen of prepared, packaged food, but not the last. In the first half of the 1980s, per capita consumption of frozen prepared meals rose more than 30 percent in every West European country except Finland; in Switzerland, the increase was 180 percent. The United States exported $18 billion worth of processed foods in 1989 and generated many times more in sales from American-owned food processing plants overseas.
Soft drinks also are taking the world by storm. And littering it as well. Most of the world's soft drinks are now served in bottles and cans that are neither reused nor recycled. Just like the fizz biz, the fast food business is growing faster outside the United States than inside. Kentucky Fried Chicken, a subsidiary of PepsiCo., is the biggest with 3,000 overseas locations, but McDonald's is gaining, adding a new restaurant somewhere in the world every day. McDonald's now operates in 54 countries and makes one-third of its sales abroad.
Getting the junk out of junk food won't be easy. For one thing, the industry is an economic titan. Americans cough up $5 billion a year for potato chips and corn chips, $66 billion for fast food and $44 billion for soft drinks. The processed food industry is the nation's largest television advertiser. It spent an estimated $4 billion on commercials last year. Together, Coca-Cola and Pepsi spent the equivalent of $1.14 per person on marketing in the United States last year -- more than most African governments spent on health care for their citizens.
Yet change is possible. In many places, fed-up consumers are expressing their discontent with profligate packaging. The Women's Environment Network in the United Kingdom recently organized a "Wrapping Is a Rip Off" campaign, urging members to tear excess packaging from their food as they fill their shopping carts.
Ever sensitive to consumer pressures, important reforms are also coming from industry leaders. McDonald's, which feeds 22 million people a day worldwide, makes its newer Golden Arches with waste plastic, uses recycled paper in its bags and napkins and publicly has committed itself to aggressively trimming its waste stream. No word, as yet, from the competition.
Alan B. Durning is a senior researcher for the Worldwatch : Institute.