Natural Foods Merchandiser

Q&A with Mark Bittman

Q: What was the thinking behind your book, Food Matters?

A: It was that people can be both selfish and altruistic at the same time by eating a better diet. That if we simply decrease our consumption of processed food, junk and animal products, and increase our consumption of plants, we have a positive effect on the environment, animal welfare, our own health and even our pocketbooks. It seems simple. But pitted against the omnipresence of big food and a multibillion-dollar marketing budget, it's a difficult message to get across.

Q: What is the single largest example of how the American diet has changed over the past 50 years?

A: The increase in consumption of junk food and processed food in general, and in sugar and fast food in particular. All of this is the result of increased availability, marketing and the decline in home cooking.

Q: Are Americans moving away from fast food or will we continue to eat out and seek convenience over health?

A: I wish I knew. I hope we move back to cooking at home, with its obvious and numerous benefits, and some indicators point in that direction. But things could get worse.

Q: In a world where you made the rules, how would you solve what you call the "industrialization of food production?"

A: You do not want me making the rules. But seriously, if I had a few wishes, they'd be to make [industrial animal production] illegal, to end most farm subsidies, to encourage the consumption of desirable foods through social policies including taxes, to make school lunch programs a high priority and to make certain that all Americans have access to real food.

Q: What changes are happening in the way people think about food?

A: It's inevitable that the more we talk about the real factors of food production and distribution, the more people know. What they're thinking is hard to say. Often they are sidetracked into obsessive behavior regarding restricting their intake of some things (fat, for example), or increasing intake of others (acaí berries) or worrying about safety issues not likely to affect them.

Q: Is the U.S. government keeping pace with those changes?

A: No. There are some signs that things are getting better under the new administration, but nothing yet to get excited about.

Q: Are you optimistic about what is happening with Americans' attitudes toward food?

A: More than ever before, but I'm still not real optimistic. Things could get a whole lot worse before they get better.

Q: How can retailers help?

A: Stock more real food and less junk and processed food, and feature it boldly. This is problematic because as everyone knows, value-added foods are the most profitable.

–Interview by Angela Cortez

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