Popular Science Monthly/Volume 77/December 1910/When Does a Food Become a Luxury?

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By Professor E. H. S. BAILEY


IN the rapid expansion which is taking place in this country, and in attempting to adjust ourselves to these changed conditions, and to the higher price of foodstuffs, there is danger that we forget to differentiate as carefully as we formerly did, between a nutritious food, which is purchased for its food value, and other products, also good enough as foods, but which are sold at prices which bring them within the domain of luxuries.

In buying delicately flavored candies or chocolates at from 40 to 80 cents per pound, although it is recognized, by those who think about it, that the chocolate and sugar are excellent food material, no one buys such things as food. They are purchased as luxuries pure and simple, because their flavor pleases the palate. Chocolate and sugar are also sold as food, or to be used as a constituent of foods, at a price so low that they can properly be used in the preparation of foods and beverages. In this case their food value is more closely proportionate to their cost.

Although a definition is in some cases a stumbling block, we venture to say that, in case of foods, a luxury is a substance that may have some nutritive value, but which has a low food value in proportion to the cost while, on the other hand, a food has, or should have, a comparatively high food value in proportion to its cost.

Some foods are expensive on account of their rarity or because they are out of season, some because of the cost of the original material from which they are made, some because they are brought from such a distance that the transportation charges are high, and others on account of the expense attending the manufacture.

In general, manufactured foods cost more than those upon which but little labor has been bestowed to prepare them for market. This is well illustrated in the case of ordinary granulated 'sugar which frequently retails at five cents per pound r while (although often made from the same "stock") "cube" sugar, which has been sawn into blocks, and "powdered" sugar, which has been ground and perhaps bolted, sells at ten cents per pound. The original materials in a five-cent loaf of bread would probably not cost three cents, yet we recognize that to make the bread and bake it and deliver it to the consumer costs something, and the manufacturer is entitled to a fair profit. That profit can be saved by the consumer if he does his own manufacturing and makes his bread at home, but that means an expenditure of labor and fuel.

There are many vegetables and fruits which, on account of containing from 30 to 90 per cent, of water, have a comparatively low food value, and seem to be expensive foods. Some of them are, but on account of the vegetable acids present, or because they dilute the more concentrated foods, or are stimulating to the appetite from their variety and agreeable taste, it is everywhere conceded that they are valuable additions to the diet. If fruits are out of season and consequently expensive, the ordinary purchaser is content to wait until they are abundant and cheap. If he pays a high price for the fruits, he immediately recognizes that they are to be classed as luxuries.

Although it may with reason be said that the cold-storage industry has afforded an opportunity to hold back from market certain perishable food products, and thus keep the price up to a figure which will insure a handsome profit, this practise has extended very greatly the season in which fruits and similar products may be offered for general consumption, and in many cases it has withdrawn them from the class of luxuries.

Game and expensive fish the ordinary consumer is not tempted to buy, but when it is a question of the "cut" of beef or mutton, he sometimes says, "the best is none too good for my family," and so buys the choicest cuts, not recognizing that others of less delicate flavor would afford the same nourishment per pound, and would if properly cooked and served be appetizing and in every way satisfactory. The sirloin may be a luxury, but the consumer does not recognize it as such and consequently spends more of his wages than he can afford upon this form of nitrogenous food.

The rapid change that is taking place in the dietary of the American people, and the necessity for doing without servants, because efficient help can not be obtained, has but confirmed the tendency in every household to allow the food manufacturer to prepare the food, and thus diminish as much as possible the labor of the household. This movement applies to all articles of household use, so that all possible labor is now done outside the home. It would be useless to attempt to stem this tide, but something may be done to direct it so that it will not entirely exhaust the family resources.

The manufacturer prepares the food from more or less satisfactory "stock," and within recent years, with fair attention to the sanitary condition of the factory. It may be packed in cans or packages or boxes or cartons, and if the package is tastily put up, and the contents have an agreeable taste, the consumer does not stop to inquire whether he is getting his money's worth or not—whether his pounds are sixteen ounces or only ten; whether he is paying at the rate of five or twenty-five cents per pound for a simple, ordinary, nutritious food. The list of foods sold in packages is constantly increasing. It includes fruits, pickles, vegetables, crackers, cakes, cereals, syrups, meats, fish, vinegar, spices, milk, cheese, butter, jams, jellies and even dried eggs. The great advantage, which all will admit, is that the package protects the food from dust and dirt and possible infection. The disadvantage is the greatly increased cost over the bulk articles.

Until the present food laws and the "weight and measure" laws were enacted, the consumer had not perhaps noticed that the "carton" had taken the place of the pound, and that this had shrunken in weight with each passing season. When the housekeeper, who was hard pressed to make her scanty allowance carry her through the week, expostulated with the grocer, in regard to the weight of his "pound" of butter, he simply said "That is the way we buy it; we do not sell the package for a pound; nobody is cheated." Decidedly some one was cheated—the consumer of course. The small housekeeper buys a bottle of vinegar for 15 cents or at the rate of 60 cents per gallon for vinegar selling in bulk at 25 or 30 cents per gallon.

One of the most conspicuous illustrations of the tendency to allow the manufacturer to reap, to say the least, a large profit, because the consumer wants to buy his food "ready prepared," is the fad of making the breakfast to a great extent of the newly invented "breakfast cereals." A few years ago the people did not know the meaning of these words, and now they are common in the most modest bill of fare.

Since these foods are made mostly from wheat, corn and oats, it is absurd to suppose that the claims of some of the manufacturers are true, when they say that these foods are in every way better than the original grains from which they are made—in fact that the process of manufacturing is a proteid-concentrating process. Analysis has shown that the amount of so-called "predigested" or "malted" material in these foods is small at most, and aside from the dextrin which is formed largely by dry heat just as bread is toasted or potatoes are browned in frying, these "malted" foods are little better than crackers or bread. It is a question, anyway, whether the normal stomach welcomes the appearance of predigested food; it is provided by nature with "apparatus and chemicals" necessary for the digestion of food, and why should the work be taken away from it?

Dismissing then the claim that these prepared foods are so much better than simply ground and partially bolted cereals, what do we pay for the finished product per pound? Are these cereals luxuries?

From the Bulletin of the Maine Agricultural Experiment Station for 1906 we quote the following cost in cents per pound for some of these foods: Quaker oats, 3.1 cents; Nichol's pearl hominy, 4.5; Cream of Wheat, 8.8; Grape Nuts, 14.6; Shredded Whole Wheat, 15; Force, 16.5; Flaked Rice, 18.2; Granula, 27.2. To this may be added the cost of some other brands, as Quaker Corn Flakes, 13.3; Kellogg's Corn Flakes, 13.3; Maple Corn Flakes, 14.5; Post Toasties, 14.5; Grape Sugar Flakes, 17.8; Malta Vita, 18.4; Sugar Corn Flakes, 20; Holland Rusk, 22.8; Puffed Wheat, 29.1 cents. At this rate a bushel of wheat which might be originally worth $1.00 would, when made into a breakfast food, cost the housekeeper from $5.00 to $12.00, calculating that 75 per cent, of the grain is available as food, as is the case in making wheat flour. Oatmeal in bulk sells at five cents a pound, and simple preparations of the other grains at from five to seven cents.

These are a few of the illustrations to show "where the money goes," or at least some of it, expended in the ordinary household. Some of us are living on the luxuries of the market, and use them as food to furnish the proteids and carbohydrates and fat for daily consumption. Instead of using the oak and maple and pine for fuel, we are feeding the fire with mahogany, and circassian walnut and rare imported woods.