Turning healthy vegetables into unhealthy chips symbolic of cultural homogenization

What could be healthier than starting dinner with a seaweed salad, then moving on to brown rice and black beans with a side of kale? What a rich balance of delicious tastes and colorful foods, and how healthy. Lots of cancer fighters, cholesterol reducers, plus no salt, sugar or chemical additives. Perfect for a vegan, and even good for a meat-eater who might add a small piece of chicken, fish, beef or lamb and still have a healthy meal.

But what a lot of work. It might take as much as a half hour to dress the seaweed, boil the rice, heat the chickpeas, sauté the kale and broil the meat.

How much easier to open a few bags and munch brown rice crackers, dried kale leaves, black bean chips and roasted seaweed snacks.  All meat-eaters have to do is add some beef jerky.

Yes, there are now chip versions of all these foods and others, too—cabbage, chickpeas, peas. In fact, American food processors have created snack chip versions of virtually every hot “super food” fad of the last few decades. For example, manufacturers have introduced 16 new versions of seaweed chips this year alone.

As readers may have already suspected, all of these chips are loaded with salt and many have sugar and chemical additives. All involve processing the life out of the original fruit or vegetable. An ounce of all these snacks delivers many more calories than an adult serving of the unprocessed food.

While 71% of all U.S. snack foods now make health claims, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, no one really believes that eating this stuff is healthy. It certainly is not as healthy as eating a serving of brown rice or kale.

People prefer the chips because of convenience and flexibility. It’s much easier to carry a bag of spiced dried chickpeas around than a plastic tub of chickpeas. And many people prefer the taste of salt and sugar to the bitterness of kale or the tang of cabbage. (Yes, there are also cabbage chips!).  They’re used to processed food.

There is no doubt that chips bear a major part of the responsibility for the epidemic of obesity and obesity-related disease we face. But beyond health, the proliferation of faux-healthy chips represents another example of the homogenization of reality that we see everywhere. Instead of authentic Italian or Mexican food, Americans go to themed versions that use a few stylistic elements from the authentic cuisine to dress up American fare. These ethnic-themed restaurants tend to load down healthy traditional recipes with unnecessary frying and extra sauces laden with so much sugar and salt that they taste more like some standard muck than like Italian or Mexican. Check out how many chain restaurants serve the very same menu: hamburgers, fajitas, chicken strips, blackened meat.  And doesn’t it seem as if pizza dough and bagels now share the same consistency and overly sweet taste in most chain restaurants and packaged versions?

And it’s not just food. National chains for auto supplies, clothing, movie theatres, fabrics, toys, sporting goods, furniture, jewelry, hair stylists, urgent care facilities, drug stores, convenience stores, fitness clubs, massage studios and consumer electronic stores make every mall in every suburb and most smaller cities look virtually the same. Many of us prefer taking a phony riverboat at a Disney resort to a real one in New Orleans or viewing the faux Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty in a Las Vegas casino to the real deals in Paris and New York.  One theme—a landmark—associated with New York or Paris is placed in a homogenized environment, like a vegetable dehydrated and encased in salt, chemical additives and binders.

On another level, the concentration of media has led to homogenization of the information we receive, too, as more media run the same stories with the same point of view.

One could make the case that this homogenization is a good thing, because it turns the disparate cultures and nationalities of the United States into a unified whole—the melting pot that produces the cookie-cutter suburbs.  I prefer a vision of the United States as a rainbow of beliefs, practices, customs and cuisines, each retaining its own authenticity while also contributing its own richness to a glorious American mosaic.

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